The Social Identity and Health Lab explores ideas merging stress, coping, and lifespan approaches to health, applied within a social identity framework. Specifically, we study how people cope with stressful experiences (e.g., discrimination, life transitions), and how support derived from various social identities (religious, ethnic, gender) can alter the negative effects of these experiences on intergroup relations and the health of both younger and older adults.

At the INDIVIDUAL level, we examine propensities to cope with a range of stressors (e.g., trauma, life transitions) using various coping strategies (problem-focused, emotion-focused), and the consequences for psychological (e.g., depression, self-esteem) and physical (e.g., cortisol reactivity) health.

At the INTERGROUP level, we assess psychosocial and stress-related physiological outcomes related to coping with group-based stressors (e.g., discrimination, ageism), including the differential effects that various social groups (e.g., religious, ethnic, gender), and the value placed on those group memberships—termed “social identity”—can have.

Our research addresses these issues with three interconnected themes:

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HEALTHY AGING: The social determinants of healthy aging are often overlooked. Hence, one of our most important lines of applied research focuses on how social identities can foster resilience among older adults and enhance seniors’ well-being. To this end, we have explored the inter-relations among seniors’ social identities (religious, ethnic, caregiver) and health outcomes (cognitive decline, psychological and physical health) in collaboration with numerous community partners. Building on our previous work assessing the role of social interventions in enhancing (or maintaining) social identities and health among seniors in care, our ongoing research focuses on developing and evaluating social interventions for older adults and their caregivers using music-based workshops and exploring the benefits fostering online social capital in our SSHRC-funded project. There is also considerable evidence to suggest that many older adults are more religious than their younger counterparts, thereby forming religious communities within communities. This identity, and the associated social support system, may therefore be an important coping resource for older adults, which bridges with our ongoing research interests in the importance of religious identities for health.

 

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RELIGIOUS & ETHNIC IDENTITIES: The unique characteristics of religious identity may lend it a two-fold advantage (even over other social identities) in coping with stress: Individuals not only gain from the sense of belonging to a social group that shares religious affiliation, but also from the associated belief system that comes into play when coping with stressful experiences. However, when religious identity itself is threatened (e.g., by cathedraldiscrimination) that uniqueness may have equally negative impacts on well-being, as such threats which not only target the social group but also the set of guiding beliefs to which it is attached. In this regard, we have examined the role of religious identification in maintaining health among older adults, in identity-affirming (or threatening) religious environments and music, and in coping with both hypothetical and real-world stressors in terms of psychological (e.g., depression) physiological (e.g., cortisol reactivity), and social outcomes (e.g., collective action). Religious and ethnic identities also often overlap, and both can have powerful influences on health– disentangling some of the impacts attributable to ethnic versus religious identity is also important.

 

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COPING WITH STRESS: When individuals encounter a stressor, which can range from minor hassles to severe trauma, they typically engage in appraisals regarding the level of threat that the event represents, and whether they are equipped to cope. However, we all belong to groups that can also shape our responses to a range of circumstances, and such group identities have been linked to positive health and well-being. In this line of research, we are investigating how various social identities (ethnic, religious, gender) are differentially related to coping with stressors, and which strategies (problem-focused, emotion-focused) are most effective. In this regard, this line of research also overlaps with our other research themes in terms of coping with caregiver stress among seniors, coping with religious identity threat and discrimination, and the complex outcomes related to coping with experiences of abuse by using religiously-based coping methods, including forgiveness (or revenge).