If It Does Not Kill You, It Will Make You Stronger....But There Are Limits.

When adversity makes you stronger, and when it doesn't.

Posted Nov 15, 2010

Does that which does not kill us, really make us stronger? On the surface, it doesn't seem like it. People who have experienced significant adverse events, like having to endure physical abuse, experiencing homelessness, or becoming the victims of a natural disaster, often suffer very painful long-term negative effects, particularly in terms of their mental health and well-being.

There has been little in the research on coping (until very recently, that is) to suggest that these individuals are likely to end up more resilient after being put through the wringer - not much evidence that they are better able to handle future difficulties with greater strength and adaptability, and to rebound emotionally faster and more effectively.

For the record, being resilient in the face of difficulty is actually the norm, rather than the exception. Most people report that they have had to cope with some significant adversity in their lives, and the majority of them do not permanently suffer for it. By and large, we recover faster and better from hardship than we expect to. But there is a big difference between returning to "baseline" after a negative event (to being "your old self" again) and ending up somehow stronger for it.

And yet many of us have a sense that adversity does indeed foster resilience - that people who have been through a lot are actually tougher, and better able to handle the curveballs that life may throw at them. Are we wrong?

New research suggests that we are right - but only when adversity strikes in moderation.

The researchers who conducted this study looked at data from a broad sample of nearly 2000 Americans. (The average age was 49, but ranged from 18 to 101 years old.) The participants filled out a measure of cumulative lifetime adversity, which asked them to indicate how often they had coped with serious difficulties or trauma, including major illness or injury, assault, loss of a loved one, serious financial difficulties, and natural disaster

(Note: I am not saying, nor are the researchers arguing, that these difficulties are equal in severity, nor that every person who experiences them suffers to the same extent. It's just not possible to take into account every person's unique experience in a study of 2000 people. The researchers' strategy, instead, was to take a set of negative experiences that we can all agree are terrible to endure, and look at how people who have had to deal with more of them differ from those who've dealt with fewer. This seems like a reasonable approach, even if it's not a perfect one.)

Not surprisingly, those who had experienced a lot of adversity had poorer outcomes, on average, than people who reported no history of adversity - they were more depressed and anxious, were less satisfied with their lives, and were more likely to have physical or emotional problems that interfered with their ability to work and socialize.

The real surprise comes when you look at people with relatively low lifetime adversity (2-4 serious adverse events or traumas). They reported having better outcomes than people who had zero lifetime adversity! They were happier, more satisfied, and better able to cope with life's daily ups and downs.

This actually makes a lot of sense. When you are exposed to a limited number of significant stressors, you come to see a bad situation as more manageable, and you approach it with greater confidence that you will be able to get through it ("If I can handle that, I can handle anything.")

Without adversity, you don't get a chance to hone your coping skills, and develop the "I can get through this" sense of efficacy that will serve you well when trouble comes along. Too much adversity, on the other hand, is likely to overwhelm your psychological resources, leaving you feeling less capable of coping when things go wrong.

So, what wisdom can we extract from these findings - how can we benefit from them? I think there are two points in particular worth remembering:

First, it is unwise to try to shelter someone from adversity completely. It's perfectly natural to try to protect our loves ones from bad experiences - particularly our children. But if you never get to tackle big problems on your own, you'll never develop the confidence and psychological resources you'll need to succeed. Ironically, when we shield a person from the harsh realities of life, we leave them even more vulnerable.

Second, if you've dealt with a lot of adversity in your life, don't beat yourself up for not ending up tougher for it. It's not surprising that your experiences have left their mark on you, and that you have a harder time than other people do just getting through your day. Be kind to yourself, and seek out the assistance that you truly deserve (from friends, counselors, support groups), to help you begin to heal.

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