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Guess How Many Life Traumas Make Us Stronger—Up to Four!

People who have not had a major crisis tend to be less resilient.

Exercise—and up to four life traumas—can make you emotionally stronger.

When you ask new marathon runners or bikers why they started, they’ll often mention a recent divorce or job loss. It’s not a bad idea: Getting out of the proverbial “comfort zone” with exercise does seem to make us more resilient.

Exercise can be calming physiologically. You may feel more confident and be more likely to see yourself as a “winner” during stressful situations. You may latch on to the pleasures of discipline.

In one study, researchers had college students wear heart rate monitors as they went through exam period, always a stressful time. Half of the students had been running twice a week for the previous 20 weeks; the other half didn’t exercise. The runners showed fewer sign of stress in their heart rate monitors during the exams.

In another study, college students who hadn’t been exercising at all began to go to the gym two or three times a week. After two months, they did better on lab tests of their self-control, and they were eating more healthily, doing more of their household chores, and drinking less alcohol.

The organization Back on My Feet reports that running even helps people overcome homelessness.

Ask the world’s top endurance and adventure athletes and they say that mastering the panic that comes with discomfort is their key to success, according to Outside columnist Brad Stulberg. They repeat a mantra, try to embrace the pain, or practice so much that discomfort during an event feels normal. They accept some discomfort.

But you don’t need to compare yourself to the professionals. Compete against yourself, pushing yourself to get stronger.

Accepting discomfort doesn’t mean ignoring the chronic back, neck or hip pain you picked up somewhere in mid-life. Chronic pain may indicate a lack of exercise or poor posture. Getting fitter, with proper form, can help. Over-doing exercise and injuring yourself also will backfire.

Learning to cope and stay even-keeled is a skill that we develop with practice. Beyond exercise, we need other challenges to grow—but not too many.

In other research, scientists surveyed 2,000 American adults about their life satisfaction and ability to handle daily stress. The survey also asked participants how often they had suffered a major trauma—which might be a big illness or injury, assault, loss of a loved one, serious money trouble, or a natural disaster.

The surprising result: people who had suffered none of these traumas were less satisfied and calm in daily life than people who reported enduring two to four big traumas. But having more than four such events in your life did leave you more fragile, on average—more depressed and anxious, less satisfied, and less able to work and socialize.

You might think two to four big traumas would be too much. Of course, one big trauma could be more demanding than two other traumas. We’re not comparing apples to apples. You don’t need to be ashamed if one trauma left you hurting.

However, it’s striking that people who say they’ve never had a big trauma appeared to be less resilient.

The famous quote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger," comes from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who suffered with migraines from childhood on and died mentally ill. It turns out he was right--sadly, only up to a point.