It is the quote used by many to bolster resilience in the face of adversity. But the words “what does not kill me, makes me stronger”, by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, could have scientific merit too, according to research.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, 12:55 PM GMT 19 Dec 2011
US psychologists found that while traumatic experiences such as assault, bereavement or natural disaster can be extremely damaging, smaller amounts of trauma may help people develop resilience. “Everybody’s heard the aphorism ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ ” Mark Seery, a researcher at the University at Buffalo, said. “But in psychology, a lot of ideas that seem like common sense aren’t supported by scientific evidence.
“Indeed, a lot of solid research shows that having miserable life experiences is bad for you.
“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. 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.”
In one study, although researchers found that people who experienced lots of adversity were generally more distressed than others, those who had experienced no traumatic events in their lives had similar psychological problems.
The people with the best outcomes were those who had experienced some negative events in their lives.
Another study found that people with chronic back pain were able to get around better if they had experienced some serious adversity, whereas those who had suffered either large amounts of adversity, or none at all, were more impaired in life.
Dr Seery said one possibility for this pattern was that people who have been through traumatic experiences have had the opportunity to develop their coping mechanisms more acutely.
He said: “The idea is that negative life experiences can toughen people, making them better able to manage subsequent difficulties.”
Dr Seery also said people who have gone through stressful events may have stronger social networks than others, as they have learnt how to get help from others when they need it.
“I really look at this as being a silver lining,” he added.
“Just because something bad has happened to someone doesn’t mean they’re doomed to be damaged from that point on.”
Dr Seery’s paper on adversity and resilience was published in the latest issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.