Study: What Doesn't Kill You MAY Make You Stronger

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In my own experience, dealing with difficult life experiences can bring positives with the negatives, leaving strength and wisdom as a by-product after the difficulties have passed. I've seen this with many others as well: if we look for the gifts that can come with stressful experiences, crises and even losses, we can eventually come out stronger for the experience.

Many people find, however, that adverse experiences can leave us more vulnerable to stress and can lead to lower levels of mental health and wellbeing.

Research shows this as well, in many cases. For example, traumatic experiences that lead to PTSD can lead to negative effects on parts of the brain and differences in responses to new stressors.  (Read more about this from's PTSD site.) Fortunately, a study from the University of Buffalo reconciles these two realities.

This study, which follows 2,398 subjects for a span of three years, found that there is a balance of adverse life experiences: some adversity does seem to make us stronger than those with a life of either no adverse life experiences or many serious struggles.

Lead researcher Mark Seery, PhD, explains, "Consistent with prior research on the impact of adversity ... more lifetime adversity was associated with higher global distress, functional impairment and PTS [post-traumatic stress] symptoms, as well as lower life satisfaction.

"Our findings revealed," he says, "that a history of some lifetime adversity -- relative to both no adversity or high adversity -- predicted lower global distress, lower functional impairment, lower PTS symptoms and higher life satisfaction."

The researchers also found that people with a history of some lifetime adversity (not none, and not copious amounts) appeared less negatively affected by recent adverse events than other individuals. In effect, what didn't kill them, so to speak, did appear to make them stronger and more resilient!

Combined with the rest of what we know about resilience, this research helps give a clearer picture of how to respond to adverse life experiences.

Just like a broken bone becomes stronger than before once it's healed, we can be stronger once we reach the other side of a difficult life event.

Because it helps to maintain a balance between too much stress and too little, it might be even more beneficial that previously thought to find ways to minimize extreme stress.  At the same time, it helps to remember that moderate stress, or stress that is well-managed, can be more beneficial than no stress at all. It's all about finding balance.  This underscores the importance of having a stress management plan that works for you.  This means finding a mix of short-term stress relievers, long-term habits, and resilience-building lifestyle features that you practice regularly.  It's also helpful to take time every so often to minimize the stress in your life that can be easily cut out, and focus on changes you can make in your thought patterns to build psychological resilience. Overall, there is much you can do to minimize the damage that can come from chronic stress, and maximize the benefits that you can get from challenging situations.  Don't forget that these situations can indeed build your inner strength.

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Source: Seery, Mark D.; Holman, E. Alison; Silver, Roxane Cohen Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability and Resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, October 11 2010.

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