Stress

The surprising upside to hitting hard times

Jan. 13, 2012 at 4:07 PM ET

by Cindy Kuzma

Men's Health

It may be hard to look on the bright side when you’re mid-divorce or post-pink slip. But traumatic life events can actually benefit you in the long run, according to a new research review.

Compared with people whose lives have been a cakewalk, you’re tougher if you’ve faced a few challenges, points out the study in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

This resilience changes your body and mind so you’re less likely to be overwhelmed by the next stressful situation, says study author Mark D. Seery, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo. “Experiencing some adversity may create a sense of mastery over past adversity, teach coping skills, establish effective social-support networks, and promote cell growth in brain areas relevant for coping,” he says.

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Even physical pain may be easier to take. In one experiment discussed in the paper, Seery and his colleagues asked men and women to report the number of traumatic events—including illness or death of a family member, a natural disaster, or being assaulted—they’d endured in their lives. Participants then plunged their hands into ice-cold water.

Those who’d faced a few challenges—“more than zero, but not a high number, either”—reported less pain during the dunk and also had fewer bad feelings afterward. In another study, people who had experienced some negative events were less disabled by back pain than those who either faced lots of adversity or none.

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It’s similar to the way you get stronger after a workout, Seery says. “Just as the body requires exertion to improve fitness, there is no opportunity for toughness to develop if someone has never coped with stress; likewise, physical overexertion can be harmful, and too much stress disrupts toughening,” he says.

It’s not completely clear exactly how many, or what type, of bad experiences build resilience instead of pushing people over the edge. And it’s not likely you’d start chasing tornadoes just to make stress at work seem more manageable. But you can use the findings to encourage yourself in the midst of a struggle, Seery says.

“Things may seem bad now, but there really can be a silver lining. Not only might the current difficulty eventually dissipate, but it is possible to emerge better off than you were before,” Seery says. “According to our results, experiencing even very serious, negative adversity can help someone to be more likely to be resilient—and thus better off—in the future.”

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