Montana State Professor Researches Keys to Resilience Amid Stress and Trauma

Dr. Neha John-Henderson is tired of doom and gloom narratives.

“This idea that if you’ve had a lot of childhood trauma, you’re doomed to have bad health. Or, if you were raised in a low-income environment, you’re told, ‘Sorry, you’re going to be at greater risk for all these diseases as an adult,’” says John-Henderson, an assistant professor in Montana State University’s Department of Psychology.

“It’s not a very optimistic picture,” she adds. “And you can’t go back and change your previous experiences.”

That’s why her lab at MSU likes to focus on resilience. As founder and principal investigator of the Stress, Adversity, Resilience and Health (SARAH) Lab, John-Henderson knows that psychosocial experiences — whether they be related to historical trauma or poverty — can affect one’s risk for chronic disease. But what’s more interesting to her is how some people remain resilient despite their life experiences. Through her lab, she’s setting out to find the keys to such resilience.

Dr. Neha John-HendersonDr. Neha John-Henderson“How do people thrive in spite of that trauma or adversity? That’s the premise,” says John-Henderson. “You know, sometimes you can’t change the fact that you have had a lot of trauma or stress — or maybe you can’t escape your current stress — but there might be things that you can do that could kind of reduce the negative impact of that stress on your health.”

As a research investigator with Montana State’s Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity (CAIRHE), John-Henderson is specifically seeking to answer those questions as they relate to a particularly vulnerable — but also resilient — community: the Blackfeet Nation. 

According to CAIRHE — which works to reduce health disparities for rural and native populations — Montana’s rural residents face higher mortality rates for six of the 10 leading causes of death, compared to residents of more urban counties. For the state’s Native communities, those disparities are even starker. 

However, in visiting with Blackfeet community members in their houses, churches, and clinics, John-Henderson says that, “Time and time again, the thing that seemed to be coming up as the strongest resilience factor capable of offsetting all the bad stuff associated with stress and trauma was social connectedness.” 

The positive health effects of social connectedness — which John-Henderson defines as “the degree to which people feel that they’re connected either to friends or family or to the larger community” — have long been observed, but few studies have explored its effect on American Indian populations. And the little research that has been done has focused largely on how historical trauma impacts mental health rather than physical health too. 

However, in December, John-Henderson received a $2.18 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities to do just that. She says it’s the first comprehensive, multiyear study of its kind.

As part of the study, John-Henderson and her team will document how positive social interactions impact sleep quality, levels of immune system proteins, and cardiometabolic markers in blood samples over a two-year period. Additionally, she will explore the shorter-term effects of daily social interactions on health. Participants will report on positive and negative social interactions throughout the day using a mobile app while wearing a wrist device that will measure activity and sleep. 

Data collection will take place at Blackfeet Community College (BCC), a tribal college that MSU often partners with and that John-Henderson has worked closely with for the past five years. Having such biometric data will ultimately help build “compelling evidence” that social connectedness does, in fact, lead to better health. 

That way, “you can make a stronger case that this is important, and this is something that we can then apply for funding to think about an intervention that would boost social connectedness at the individual level but also at the larger community level," says John-Henderson. 

Such intervention might look like programs that embrace a community 's shared culture or planning more gatherings led by elders, says John-Henderson, who adds that “the data is going to have to point us in the right direction.”

“It’s exciting for me, because that’s something you can change through interventions and through different social support, resources or programs,” says John-Henderson. Plus, “those kinds of interventions don’t really cost a lot. It’s not about medicine. It’s not drugs. It’s about changing or amplifying connections to other people.” 

This article originally appeared in the March 3, 2022 edition of Diverse. Read it here.