Rethinking the relationship between stress and resilience

Sarah Fletcher

I began my dissertation research, the ‘Navigating Multiple Worlds’ project, with a broad focus: immigrant youth and stress. My initial proposal concentrated on mental health and the increased potential for stress in the lives of immigrant youth, a framework informed by studies on cultural dissonance and trauma, which problematize immigrant youth identities and emphasize the challenges that can be part of immigration experiences. After five years, I have a very different perspective.

Working with youth researchers as partners, I came to see that while I began my work with the assumption that experiences of stress were inherently negative, youth perspectives and experiences of stress are far more fluid and nuanced. Immigrant youth do face uncertainty in many aspects of their lives. Most have little control over their family’s decision to immigrate and many encounter challenges once they arrive. Stress does function as an idiom of distress for many of these youth. However, through our participatory research process stress also emerged as an idiom of resilience, drawing attention to the strengths of youth as they ‘navigate multiple worlds’.

In anthropology, stress has been theorized as an emerging diagnostic category – for example, post-traumatic stress disorder – where stress is discussed simultaneously as a symptom, an etiology, and an ideology (Young 1997, 2007). Stress has also been a focus in research related to somatic responses to distress or patterns of distress (Korovkin and Stephenson 2010; Kirmayer and Young 1998) as well as narratives or ‘idioms of distress’ (Nichter 2010, 1981). Korovkin and Stephenson (2010) maintain that while stress is often discussed as a concrete phenomenon it is, in reality, an explanatory principle. Yet, the popularized notion of stress as a generalized, negative force continues to be commonly referenced, which influenced my initial approach to this study.

My work with the youth research team was very engaging, and involved weekly research meetings over the course of a year, as well as additional activities. The team was involved in the design and implementation of interviews, focus groups, and a photovoice exercise. Through this methodology, we sought to highlight narrative complexities and the fluidity of experiences, with the research team reflecting on their own experiences while gathering perspectives on stress from other immigrant youth. However, on my own, I struggled to find a framework or approach that would allow me to think and write about stress in a way that would accurately reflect youth experiences and perspectives.

I realized that thinking about stress as a discourse allowed me to contextualize experiences, while stress as an idiom of distress provided a framework for thinking about how stress was experienced and what stress meant to the youth in our research. Only by considering stress as both an idiom of distress and as a discourse could I begin to explore the relationship between stress and subjectivity, which I realized was really where my interests lay. Thinking about subjectivity as the expression of agency in contexts of social change (Biehl, Good, and Kleinman 2007), it became apparent that for many of the youth engaged in our research, talk about stress was also an expression of subjectivity. This crystallized during the photovoice exhibit, which made manifest the value youth placed on their experiences of stress in shaping their ways of being in the world. The exhibit was also central to the emergence of a focus on resilience in my own thinking and writing about stress.

As a narrative idiom, I suggest that people use the label of ‘stress’ to cope with the changing world. In the context of our research, the multiple and sometimes conflicting expectations placed on youth were described as primary sources of stress, a finding echoed in much of the research on immigrant youth. However, our research also suggests that these conflicting expectations can be understood as key ‘sites of flexibility’ in immigrant youths’ lives. Youth use the language of stress to name challenging experiences and overcome them, a process of negotiation that contributes to resilience. Acknowledging how youth navigate across ‘cultural flows’ may be a more pragmatic way to view the immigration process rather than only seeing the disruption and separation presented in much of the earlier literature. 

At its core, resilience research asks: what enhances the capacities of individuals and groups to deal with threats more competently (Obrist, Pfeiffer, and Henley 2010)? Our research suggests that narratives of stress can assist immigrant youth in enhancing these capacities. Exploring stress as a narrative tool rather than something that is measurable as a ‘thing’ or symptom on its own, I argue that stress can be a means of facilitating self-definition or self-organization, and that stress can function as an idiom of resilience as well as distress (Obrist and Buchi 2008).

Working collaboratively with the youth research team was exciting, engaging, and instrumental to our success. In addition to reframing my understanding of stress, this study allowed me to reflect on participatory research with youth and the value of arts-based research methods in creating ‘thinking spaces’ (McCormack 2008). Engaging youth in research does more than give them voice: it provides opportunities for them to reflect on their own agency. This can, in turn, can enhance resilience, allowing the process of research to become an intervention.

About the author

Sarah Fletcher recently completed her PhD in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria. She is the community research coordinator at the Centre for Healthy Communities Research on Vancouver Island. With a background in medical anthropology and community-based research, her research interests include immigrant youth, mental health, resilience, participatory research with youth, arts-based research methods, youth engagement in disaster-risk reduction, Aboriginal health, and participatory research with marginalized populations.


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