A Brief Review of the Conservation of Resources Theory as it Applies to Military Trauma

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By: Jordan Joyner, MS & Valerie Leake, PhD, LCP

Jordan Joyner, MS
Jordan Joyner, MS

The Conservation of Resource Theory (COR; Hobfoll, 2001) has been found to be a reliable basis for understanding the processes involved with experiencing, coping with, and overcoming chronic and traumatic stress (Hobfoll et al., 2001).  The COR theory postulates that individuals are motivated to protect, procure, and preserve resources (Hobfoll, 1991).  Resources are anything that a person values and can be broken down into four categories: objects (e.g., house, phone), conditions (e.g., stable employment, good health), personal characteristics, (e.g., optimism, hope), and energies (e.g., knowledge).  According to the COR theory, stress results when an individual’s resources are threatened, depleted, or when investment(s) in new resources do not accrue adequately (Hobfoll, 1991; Hobfoll, 2001).  Hobfoll (1991) proposed that traumatic stress results from an accelerated loss of resources, particularly those that are most valued by the individual.  Compared to civilians, United States (U.S.) military personnel have a greater likelihood of experiencing combat trauma through deployment or work-related responsibilities (King et al., 1999; Hobfoll et al., 2012).  In recent years, there has been a surge of deployments to active war zones, increasing the frequency of combat trauma.  A statistical report of military and civilian casualties related to the U.S.’ involvement in wars/conflicts from 2000 to 2015 found higher rates of PTSD among deployed personnel.  The majority of PTSD diagnoses in the military, 77.87%, were among men and women who were previously deployed (Fischer, 2015). These findings indicate the need for continued examination of combat trauma and its impact on a service member’s resources.  A brief review of how COR theory applies to military trauma is provided.

Valerie Leake, PhD, LCP
Valerie Leake, PhD, LCP

Military trauma is a broad term that encompasses unexpected and stressful events unique to service members.  Military trauma can include combat, terrorism, and military sexual trauma (National Center for PTSD, 2017).  Although prior research has determined that the majority of service members adapt well across the lifespan, chronic mental health issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are commonly associated with traumatic events among these individuals (Hobfoll et al., 2012).  This may due to the impact traumatic events have on an individual’s resources (Hobfoll, 1991; King et al., 1999), as they challenge current coping capabilities (Hobfoll et al., 2012).

Traumatic or extreme stressors are unique in that 1) they attack individuals’ core values, 2) they are often unanticipated, 3) they require significant energy, 4) typical coping strategies are ineffective, and 5) a strong mental image regarding the event is imprinted on the individual (Hobfoll, 1991).  Resources, such as social support, well-being, and optimism become increasingly difficult to utilize, protect, and maintain following a military trauma.  Three principles guide COR theory as it applies to traumatic stress.

The first principle of COR theory states that resource loss has a significantly stronger impact on the individual than resource gain (Hobfoll, 1991; 2001).  For example, should a service member lose a comrade in battle, receiving a medal to recognize his/her exemplary efforts during the battle would not mitigate the loss of a friend.  Resource loss has been found to be significantly associated with psychological distress (Hobfoll et al., 2012; Vogt et al., 2011), whereas resource gain has a restricted impact on psychological distress (Hobfoll & Lilly, 1993).  Hobfoll and colleagues (2012) examined the impact of family life, work, and war-related stressors on PTSD symptoms, depression, and perceived health and functioning in a large sample of Air Force men and women.  Collectively, the stressors directly affected symptoms of PTSD and depression.  Of significance was the finding that larger stressors predicted increased resource loss and reduced resource gain.  Resource loss further predicted PTSD symptom severity and levels of perceived distress.  Similarly, King et al. (1999) found direct links between pre-trauma, war-zone, and post-trauma experiences and PTSD.  They suggested that pre-trauma life experiences may have depleted the individual’s ability to cope with stressors later in life.  These findings support the argument that resource loss outweighs resource gain.

In the second principle, individuals must invest in resources in order to prevent and restore resource loss, as well as acquire new resources. This principle is typically studied in research concerning coping, indicating that resource investment is a coping mechanism meant to prevent future losses (Ito & Brotheridge, 2003).  For example, a person must reach out to friends/family in times of stress in order to receive social support (Hobfoll et al., 1995).  By investing in resources, an individual is able to cope more effectively with stressors.

This principle also has been supported in the context of military trauma.  Just as service members learn how to apply their skills in a variety of conditions and settings, they also must learn how to adjust to traumatic circumstances by investing resources in an effort to overcome the impact of a traumatic event.  For example, those who utilize (i.e., invest) social support (i.e., a resource) are less likely to develop PTSD (King et al., 1999; Vogt & Tanner, 2007). Similarly, hardiness, a personality characteristic that entails effectively coping with everyday stressors, appears to be a protective factor against deployment stressors (Vogt et al., 2008).  However, these resources are likely to be depleted in the aftermath of military trauma (Vogt et al., 2008).  Investing in resources is likely to assist a service member in protecting current resources, assisting in the acquisition of new resources, and preventing future loss of resources.

The third principle involves loss and gain spirals (Hobfoll et al., 1995).  As stated in the first principle resource losses are more influential than resource gains, with gains requiring more time and energy.  Loss spirals result from the ongoing cycle of a rapid depletion of resources, with the opposite being true for gain cycles (Hobfoll et al., 2001, Hobfoll et al., 2015).  The loss of resources contributes to trauma reactions, which, in turn, give rise to the loss of additional resources (Johnson et al., 2007).  This downward cycle is believed to continue and build on itself (Hobfoll et al., 1995).

In the wake of a traumatic event, individuals lose resources such as a sense of well-being, optimism, or trust (Hobfoll, 1991).  People have fewer and/or less effective resources to cope with new challenges (Hobfoll et al., 1995), making the impact of a future stressor that much stronger.  Researchers have confirmed that multiple chains of risk explain the development of PTSD (King et al., 1999; Vogt & Tanner, 2007).  Life experiences prior to, during, and after military involvement also may augment the impact of stress on an individual, which minimize resources and, in turn, increase veterans’ risk of experiencing another stressor (Vogt et al., 2011).  More specifically, childhood traumatic experiences may mean a loss of resources early in life that predict a greater risk for exposure to stressors later in life, as well as less access to appropriate resources that prevent losses (Vogt et al., 2011). When considering post-deployment experiences, exposure to additional life stressors, such as job interruption or criminal victimization (King et al., 1998), and a lack of social support (King et al., 1999) suggests a loss of resources that makes adjusting to life after deployment challenging (Vogt et al., 2011). For example, family instability during childhood and perceived threat in combat were associated with experiencing additional stressors in Gulf War veterans (Vogt & Tanner, 2007).  Similarly, in a sample of U.S. Air Force personnel, symptoms of PTSD predicted future loss of resources, as well as a decline in perceived health and functioning (Vinokur et al., 2011).  The minimization of resources over time resulting from repeated exposure to traumatic events provides evidence for loss spirals, as outlined by COR theory (Hobfoll, 1991; Hobfoll et al., 1995).

The basic tenets of COR theory provide a framework for understanding the development of traumatic stress.  When examining the impact of military trauma, it is clear that a loss of resources contributes to a host of negative outcomes, such as PTSD and depression (King et al., 1999; Vogt et al., 2011).  These findings are consistent with the COR theory.  The COR theory contributes to the field of trauma psychology, by providing guidance for treatment programs for veterans by promoting the exploration of both protective and risk factors for the development of traumatic stress.  By increasing our understanding of resources and how resources assist in coping with military trauma, we are better able to meet the needs of veterans.


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Jordan Joyner obtained her master’s degree from Tennessee State University, and is currently a doctoral student in Radford University’s Counseling PsyD program.  She is completing her third year practicum placement with the Salem, VA Veterans Affairs Hospital in the inpatient PTSD and substance abuse units.  Jordan’s research interests include trauma, resilience, and the military.  She is team leader of a veteran’s research team, and has co-created a veteran-specific orientation course that will begin in Fall 2017.  Jordan is also currently assisting with a grant application.  Her long-term career goal is to treat trauma in the military population.

Dr. Valerie Leake received her PhD in Counseling Psychology from University of Kentucky.  She began teaching at Radford University in 2007.  She has specialized training with the veteran population, serving for two years as the PTSD Clinical Team/Evidence-Based Psychotherapies Coordinator for the Lexington, KY Veterans Affairs Hospital before becoming the Training Director of Radford University’s Counseling PsyD program in 2016.  Dr. Leake has initiated a student veterans research team, established Radford University as a co-host for the 2017 Rural Behavioral Conference, and spear-headed grants specific to military psychology.  Her research interests include trauma, veterans, and counseling services in rural areas.