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A little trauma may be a good thing, psychologists say

Dec. 19, 2011
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Your par­ents were right: hard ex­pe­ri­ences may in­deed make you tough, psy­chol­o­gists say based on new re­search. 

Re­search­ers have found that, while many ex­pe­ri­ences like as­sault, hur­ri­canes, and be­reave­ment can be psy­cho­log­ic­ally dam­ag­ing, small amounts of trau­ma may help peo­ple de­vel­op re­sil­ience.

“Of course, ev­ery­body’s heard the aph­o­rism, ‘What­ev­er does not kill you makes you stronger,’” said Mark D. Seery of the Uni­vers­ity at Buf­fa­lo, N.Y. His pa­per on ad­vers­ity and re­sil­ience ap­pears in the De­cem­ber is­sue of the jour­nal Cur­rent Di­rec­tions in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, pub­lished by the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Assoc­iation for Psy­cho­lo­gi­cal Sci­ence.

But in psy­chol­o­gy, he said, a lot of ide­as that seem like com­mon sense aren’t sup­ported by sci­en­tif­ic ev­i­dence.

In­deed, a lot of sol­id psy­chol­o­gy re­search shows that hav­ing mis­er­a­ble life ex­pe­ri­ences is bad for you, he added. Se­ri­ous events, like the death of a child or par­ent, a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter, be­ing phys­ic­ally at­tacked, ex­pe­ri­encing sex­u­al abuse, or be­ing forcibly sep­a­rat­ed from your fam­i­ly, can cause psy­cho­log­ical prob­lems. In fact, some re­search has sug­gested that the best way to go through life is hav­ing noth­ing ev­er hap­pen to you. But not only is that un­real­is­tic, it’s not nec­es­sarily healthy, Seery said.

In one stu­dy, Seery and his col­leagues found that peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­enced many trau­matic life events were more dis­tressed in gen­er­al—but they al­so found that peo­ple who had ex­pe­ri­enced no neg­a­tive life events had si­m­i­lar prob­lems. The peo­ple with the best out­comes were those who had ex­pe­ri­enced some neg­a­tive events. An­oth­er study found that peo­ple with chron­ic back pain were able to get around bet­ter if they had ex­pe­ri­enced some se­ri­ous ad­vers­ity, where­as peo­ple with ei­ther a lot of ad­vers­ity or none at all were more im­paired.

One pos­si­bil­ity for this pat­tern is that peo­ple who have been through dif­fi­cult ex­pe­ri­ences have had a chance to de­vel­op their abil­ity to cope. “The idea is that neg­a­tive life ex­pe­ri­ences can tough­en peo­ple, mak­ing them bet­ter able to man­age sub­se­quent dif­fi­culties,” Seery said. In ad­di­tion, peo­ple who get through bad events may have tested out their so­cial net­work, learn­ing how to get help when they need it.

This re­search is­n’t tell­ing par­ents to abuse their kids so they’ll grow up to be well-ad­just­ed adults, Seery said. “Nega­tive events have neg­a­tive ef­fects,” he said. “I really look at this as be­ing a sil­ver lin­ing. Just be­cause some­thing bad has hap­pened to some­one does­n’t mean they’re doomed to be dam­aged from that point on.”


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Your parents were right: Hard experiences may indeed make you tough, psychologists say based on new research. Researchers have found that, while going through many experiences like assault, hurricanes, and bereavement can be psychologically damaging, small amounts of trauma may help people develop resilience. “Of course, everybody’s heard the aphorism, ‘Whatever does not kill you makes you stronger,’” said Mark D. Seery of the University at Buffalo. His paper on adversity and resilience appears in the December issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. But in psychology, he said, a lot of ideas that seem like common sense aren’t supported by scientific evidence. Indeed, a lot of solid psychology research shows that having miserable life experiences is bad for you, he added. Serious events, like the death of a child or parent, a natural disaster, being physically attacked, experiencing sexual abuse, or being forcibly separated from your family, can cause psychological problems. In fact, some research has suggested that the best way to go through life is having nothing ever happen to you. But not only is that unrealistic, it’s not necessarily healthy, Seery said. In one study, Seery and his colleagues found that people who experienced many traumatic life events were more distressed in general—but they also found that people who had experienced no negative life events had similar problems. The people with the best outcomes were those who had experienced some negative events. Another study found that people with chronic back pain were able to get around better if they had experienced some serious adversity, whereas people with either a lot of adversity or none at all were more impaired. One possibility for this pattern is that people who have been through difficult experiences have had a chance to develop their ability to cope. “The idea is that negative life experiences can toughen people, making them better able to manage subsequent difficulties,” Seery said. In addition, people who get through bad events may have tested out their social network, learning how to get help when they need it. This research isn’t telling parents to abuse their kids so they’ll grow up to be well-adjusted adults, Seery said. “Negative events have negative effects,” he said. “I really look at this as being a silver lining. Just because something bad has happened to someone doesn’t mean they’re doomed to be damaged from that point on.”