Research shows that early experiences of trauma can disrupt the brain's stress response, affecting the amygdala (the brain’s alarm system), hippocampus (verbal memory center), prefrontal cortex (the CEO of the brain and its stress regulator). These changes make people with too much early trauma more chemically reactive to stress, in general, as a teenager or adult. It’s as if these early negative experiences feed our reactions to current stressors.
That being said, we all know some pretty successful and happy people who have experienced difficult childhoods—perhaps having an alcoholic parent, being adopted, or losing a parent. This raises the question of whether experiencing some stress can actually make us mentally tougher.
Is Some Stress Good for Us?
Some researchers have suggested that exposure to a moderate level of stress that you can master can actually make you stronger and better able to manage stress. It's like how a vaccine, which contains a tiny amount of the bug, can immunize you against getting the disease.
Richard Dienstbier’s (1989) theory of mental toughness suggests that experiencing some manageable stressors, with recovery in between, can make us more mentally and physically tough and less reactive to future stress. One possibility is that such experiences lead us to view stressors as more manageable and become more skillful at dealing with them.
Some studies by Professor Seery and colleagues at UCLA seem to bear this out. They followed a national sample of subjects for several years, assessing how much stress they had experienced in their lives, their recent stressors, any mental health factors, and their overall life satisfaction. The researchers found that:
“People with a history of some lifetime adversity reported better mental health and well-being outcomes than not only people with a high history of adversity, but also than people with no history of adversity.” (Seery et al., 2010, p. 1025)
People with a lot of lifetime trauma had the worst mental and physical health, but those with a history of some (greater than zero) adverse life events were less distressed, had less disability, fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms, and higher life satisfaction over time than those with no negative life events. Importantly, people who had experienced a bit of adversity were the least affected by recent stressful life events. The researchers concluded that:
“In moderation, whatever does not kill us may indeed make us stronger.” (Seery et al., 2010, p.1025).
What About Chronic Pain Patients?
But was this just a freak result that may have had something to do with the particular sample they used?
It turns out this was not the case. The researchers found support for the benefits of a little adversity in a sample of chronic low back pain patients as well. In a study of over 400 such patients (Seery, Leo, Holman & Silver, 2010), participants with the highest levels of adverse life events were the most sick and disabled overall. But there was also a similar pattern to the previous study.
In other words, those with some (greater than zero) lifetime experience of adverse life events reported less disability and used the healthcare system less often than those with no adversity.
Why Does Experiencing (Moderate) Stress Make Us Tougher?
Results of these studies suggest that some history of experiencing stressors might be good for us, perhaps because this makes us less reactive to our current life events.
Here are some possible reasons why:
- Perhaps experiencing a bit of stress make us hardier and better able to tolerate and adapt to life’s difficulties.
- Going through a moderate stressor (like relocating or breaking a limb) may help us learn new skills (like sociability or patience) we can apply in later life.
- We may gain confidence in managing stress. ("If I can do this, I can do the next difficult thing.")
- We may be less likely to fear change. For example, we may learn that it’s okay to leave a toxic relationship or a bad job and that we can survive and even thrive afterwards.
- We may adopt a more positive attitude towards stress in general, knowing how it may have helped us grow. Research shows that seeing your stressor as a growth opportunity helps you perform better both in stressful laboratory tasks (like public speaking) and in stressful jobs (like sales).
- People who report never experiencing any stress may be too averse to taking reasonable risks, making them less likely to reach their goals in life and relationships.