As I mentioned in my most recent post, last week I was fortunate enough to attend the American Psychosomatic Society Annual Meeting, in Louisville, Kentucky – home of Muhammad Ali, The KFC Colonel and Bourbon! All of which featured in my trip! This conference was extremely timely and relevant to me and my thesis as the overall theme was ‘Optimizing Health and Resilience in a Changing World’.
Most conferences lead me to make lots of notes and although I have the best intentions, beyond typing them up I rarely look at them again. But during this conference I felt compelled to keep a record of the main plenary sessions, panels and award presentations – particularly as very early on I started to see patterns emerging from the various speakers. Here I wanted to reflect on the main take home points that stood out for me and pick up on the themes that I noticed.
Day one – Wednesday
The conference started off on day one with Sheldon Cohen, recipient of the Distinguished Scientist Award presenting his work on ‘Psychological Stress, Social Relations and Health’. In particular what I enjoyed about this presentation was the work on the common cold and also the buffering effect of social support. Cohen discussed the specific biological pathways that led to particular outcomes in the face of adversity. He highlighted the importance of defining our terms and knowing what it was we were talking about – whether we meant social support or social inclusion – two terms with very different meanings and which impact health in different ways. The impact of the types and numbers of social roles were presented and telomeres also got a mention as a moderator of socioeconomic status and adult immunity.
What came next was an engaging and excellent plenary address from George Bonanno, discussing ‘The Temporal Elements of Psychological Resilience’. The presentation began with some clear statements about how we define resilience – mainly that it is difficult to define, is not a static concept, and as such it can’t really be measured. Bonanno prefers the term flexibility and presented some interesting statistics which demonstrated that resilience is actually very common, with 50-70% of the population showing resilience to major life events such as bereavement, major illness, serious accidents and war. This, Bonanno attributes to our fantastic stress response system that works well and does its job efficiently in most instances. When asked about some of the specific factors that impact or support resilience, Bonnano’s response was that rather than thinking of individual factors, we should be focussing on categories – such as social relations or resources as these capture more of the variance within and between specific factors. As such, interventions that touch as many of these categories as possible will be the most effective.
After the first introductory talks there was the opening ceremony and the citation poster session. I was delighted to see two other posters that talked about hair cortisol, one of which looked at whether researcher hair sample collection and at home collection were comparable in terms of cortisol output and sample quality.
Day two – Thursday
The second day of the conference was a packed one and started nice and early with a ‘data blitz’ session which provided attendees with a very brief overview of research that could be followed up later in the poster session.
This was followed by the first plenary of the day, delivered by David Williams discussing ‘Racism, Resilience and Health: Evidence and Needed Research. Williams presented some statistics that many attendees found shocking and many expressed their lack of knowledge in this area. Powerful visual representations of income and health disparities between different racial groups were provided and it was clear that racism is very much a serious issue when it comes to health concerns. Williams talked about a ‘social safety net’ that when challenged and broken down, disparities and issues begin to emerge or worsen. He explained that all humans are prejudice and that in some ways it is an evolutionary survival mechanism, but without awareness of these prejudices, racism becomes an issue that is about what is in your head rather than the colour of skin. An interesting point that I took away was that the threat of discrimination could have just as much, if not more, of a negative impact as the actual experience of discrimination. Williams concluded his presentation by stating that we need to think of resilience as a system and target as many aspects as possible – echoing the point that Bonanno had made in his plenary address. As such, we were urged to ‘develop comprehensive solutions for the issues that disadvantaged communities face’. Williams was an incredibly engaging presenter, and though racism and health is not my area of expertise, I came away realising that racism and health is everyone’s issue and it is our responsibility to acknowledge it and challenge it within our work and research.
What followed Williams’ plenary was a fascinating and interesting panel discussion chaired by Julie Bower and featuring George Bonanno, Ken Freedland, Jeff Huffman and Judy Moskowitz which discussed ‘Can (and should) Resilience Be Raised? Lessons from The Trenches’. The session kicked off with each of the panel describing their own personal definition of resilience, which varied from ‘are there ways we can help people cope better? Can we help them to not become depressed?’ (Moskowitz), to Bonanno’s conceptualisation of flexibility and the idea that resilience is both ‘achieving despite plight’ and ‘succeeding in overcoming rather than struggling to overcome’. Panelist’s raised the question of whether resilience is the absence of negative factors or the presence of positive, and opinions varied. Some interesting points raised in this discussion was that resilience interventions may not require a stressor or adverse event to be effective, the idea of resilience vs resistance and skin-deep resilience, whereby outward indicators of resilient mask underlying health issues. Once again, the point about resilience factors being a number of small things not one large thing was raised in terms of taking an ‘aggregated marginal gains approach’ and it was emphasised that a general skills approach to build a repertoire of tools and resources might be the most effective way to promote resilience. Discussants highlighted that what we call an intervention can impact those who participate and that it is important to be honest in the name of an intervention but also to manage expectations of participants. Finally, there was a question surrounding the term resilience itself, and whether it has become something that means too many things to too many people, and whether we are at risk of the term becoming useless.
In the lunch break I attended a ’roundtable’ called ‘Bootcamp for burnout’. This session focussed on assessing our levels of burnout, looking out for signs of burnout and ways to prevent it. We were provided with lots of information and then had a practical ‘art therapy’ session. I felt very resistant at first, as did many others, but overall the experience was worthwhile and quite enlightening!
The last of the conference sessions for the day was another poster session and I was really pleased to see a couple of other UK folks at this one!
Finally, the day ended with a mentor – mentee session. This is a great initiative run by the APS where before the conference you submit your area of research and your general aims for post-PhD or your academic career. You are then matched with an academic who you sit with and are able to ask them questions and talk over your plans. I received some great feedback on what I intend to do post-PhD and got some valuable academic life wisdom too!
By then end of day two I was surprised by how in only 24 hours I had already soaked up so much information and exciting data linked to my thesis. I was looking forward to the next two days and actually really excited at the prospect of integrating so much of what I’d learnt into my writing. It felt like the conference so far had super-charged my ideas for my own work and brought some of the sections of my thesis right up to date with the interesting discussion points that had been raised throughout the day.
Stay tuned for part two where I round-up the final two days of the conference and summarise my key learning points and the themes that I felt were important throughout the entire meeting.
Until next time 🙂