The famous saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” is a popular saying used daily in music and movies and everyday conversation. The saying, originally penned by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was actually “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

A corollary to this saying is that suffering is good for you, and makes you more resilient.

There is a common assumption in our culture that going through pain and tragedy may help you grow as a person. We hear the phrase frequently used by media figures and self-help gurus as a truism and demonstration of one’s resiliency daily. Some authors imply that weak individuals don’t grow stronger via misfortune by saying that only courageous people do.

“You’ll appreciate life more,” they promise. “You learn some vital things and grow more robust,” “You feel appreciative for what you have in life.”

The problem with the saying is that it is not generally true for most people, according to recent research.

The Research in Support of the Saying

The best science to date has revealed the following, which we do know: Adversity can help people grow. They can get stronger, enhance the calibre of their connections, and boost their self-worth. However, it probably doesn’t occur as frequently as most people and some studies think.

Stories of recovery from adversity are undoubtedly inspiring. We can draw motivation from them for our own life.

This subject keeps coming up in the wake of violent crimes, terrorist acts, and, of course, the current COVID effects.

This theme appears time and again, in the wake of natural disasters and terrorist attacks, violent crimes, and of course, now, the effects of COVID.

Their findings argue that there’s a silver lining to every tragedy. It’s also consistent with the biblical theme of redemption, which says that all pain and suffering will ultimately lead to freedom.

According to their studies, tragedy and trauma might also aid us in understanding our own lives. Psychologists have shown that rather than focusing on our achievements and happy moments, we prefer to describe our life in terms of the difficulties we’ve faced and the failures we’ve overcome. The majority of widely watched films and books provide examples. Because it frequently features prominently in the tales we tell about our own lives, we want to think that good things can come from a bad turn of circumstances.

Tragedy and trauma can also be viewed as a badge of honor, almost an accomplishment, to survive a terrible time feeling braver, more powerful and more ready to take on the next battle.

There is some research to support the aphorism. Stephen Joseph, Ph.D., author of What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger: The New Psychology of Trauma and Transformation, explains, “Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they remained fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.

A strengths-based view is provided by Joseph’s concept of post-traumatic growth. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte researchers Lawrence G. Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi found that trauma survivors frequently experience significant healing, better spiritual faith, and philosophical grounding.

The term posttraumatic growth refers to any positive personality change that results from adversity. After experiencing a very stressful event or personal misfortune, many people say that the event helped them grow in various ways. However, studies suggest that most people don’t experience genuine posttraumatic growth. So what’s the truth?

Posttraumatic growth can come in many forms. Psychologists have identified five main types that involve:

  • deepened social relationships
  • increased sense of personal strength
  • heightened appreciation of life
  • broadened sense of new possibilities
  • enhanced spirituality

Psychologists have demonstrated that we like to think and reflect on our lives as a story. The story often talks about the challenges we’ve confronted and the setbacks we’ve overcome. We say or like to say that good things came about from trauma or unfortunate events.

HOWEVER

However, some research has shown that the expression is not accurate. According to some researchers, past stressful experiences do not create resilience to a future trauma.

 According to recent research, the opposite is true: traumatic experiences in the past make people more vulnerable to future traumas and raise their risk of mental health disorders.

For instance, according to several US government publications, PTSD affects 15 to 30% of US veterans who have served in the military. They did not become more resilient as a result of their painful experiences.

According to a recent study, some of the most reliable indicators of whether a patient hospitalized for COVID-19 would continue to have symptoms of extended COVID a year later included the death of a loved one, food or financial insecurity, or the onset of a new handicap.

he study, led by investigators from NYU Grossman School of Medicine, discovered that adult patients with such “major life stressors,” which were present in more than 50% of those monitored, were at least twice as likely to experience depression, brain fog, fatigue, sleep issues, and other persistent COVID-19 symptoms.

Studies of the long-term effects on mental health for POWs in war zones indicate ongoing and sometimes life-long damaging effects resulting in a variety of mental health problems.

A study from Brown University is calling into question the validity of that statement. The researchers reported that past traumatic events usually make people more sensitive and vulnerable to future problems, not more resilient.

The researchers concluded their findings based on their study of the Chilean disaster survivors who had experienced traumas and were at a greater risk of developing PTSD compared to those who had experienced few or no prior stressors.

More than 100 scientific studies have examined this question. The highest-quality studies have surveyed people before adversity and then studied them again afterward. Taken together, those studies have found that adversity doesn’t regularly lead to genuine posttraumatic growth. The only type of growth that seems to arise consistently from adversity is deepened relationships. During times of struggle, our relationships with loved ones often become more intimate, meaningful, and rewarding.

So the research evidence shows that people do not usually experience positive personality change as a result of adversity. Instead, their personality usually stays roughly the same. Or, in some cases, they might even experience declines in certain areas, such as their self-esteem or their spirituality.

To get a more accurate understanding of how adversity affects us, we need research that establishes a baseline before adversity strikes and then measures how people do or not do change over time. Edward B. Davis and colleagues published their research in the journal Personality and studied the psychological effects of Hurricane Irma on victims.  As Hurricane Irma was heading toward the United States in 2017, they asked around 2,000 people in the projected path of the hurricane to complete questionnaires online, answering questions about their spirituality and their mental health. Then they asked them to complete the same measures both 1 month and 6 months after the hurricane hit land.

The researchers concluded “Our findings echoed the common finding from previous research: people often believed they grew spiritually from the disaster, but they didn’t experience any meaningful growth relative to baseline levels. Only 5% of people showed genuine spiritual growth, and most demonstrated spiritual decline.”

“Unfortunately, the same may well hold true with COVID-19,” said Stephen Buka, the lead author of the research. “We’re already witnessing how black and Latino Americans are experiencing higher rates of COVID-19 infections and fatalities. All evidence suggests that disadvantaged groups, who frequently have higher levels of prior life stresses, such as limited finances and job instability, will be most likely to suffer the most from serious mental health conditions following the pandemic.”

Noam Shppancer, writing in Psychology Today argues against the adage. He says “Developmental research has shown convincingly that traumatized children are more, not less, likely to be traumatized again. Kids who grow up in a tough neighborhoods become weaker, not stronger. They are more, not less likely to struggle in the world.”

Barbara Ganzel and colleagues published a study on resilience after 9/11 published in Neuroimage.

They explain how, while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging to track activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for creating and storing emotional memories, healthy participants were exposed to images of frightened and tranquil faces. In contrast to those who lived more than 200 miles away, they discovered that people who were close to the World Trade Center on 9/11 displayed much higher amygdala activity while viewing the terrified faces. Ganzel said, “We have known for a long time that trauma exposure might contribute to later sensitivity to mental health disorders years after the incident. Our findings imply that there may be long-term neurobiological implications of trauma exposure, even in persons who appear resilient. We are learning more about the biology underpinning that vulnerability thanks to this research. When stress and trauma do leave a mark, it usually looks like a bruise under the skin rather than a belt notch.”

In an interview in Psychology Today Edward (Ward) B. Davis., associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College, where he serves as the Director of the Psychology and Spirituality Research Lab and the Director of Research for the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, described his research into the resilience of the survivors of the Katrina Hurricane Disaster. He said, “We’re all familiar with Nietzsche’s famous claim, ‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.’This idea is so thoroughly embedded in contemporary thought that it’s often just uncritically assumed to be true. I guess what surprised me was how much that doesn’t seem to be the case. The disaster survivors in our study didn’t get ‘stronger’ spiritually. Quite to the contrary, they tended to show a spiritual decline.”

In a major study by Judith Mangelsdorf and colleagues, published in Psychological Bulletin, they conducted a meta-analysis of the aftereffects of posttraumatic growth. They concluded: “A positive trend has been found for self-esteem, positive relationships, and mastery in prospective studies after both positive and negative events. We found no general evidence for the widespread conviction that negative life events have a stronger effect than positive ones. No genuine growth was found for meaning and spirituality.”

Psychologists Eranda Jayawickreme and Frank J. Infurna at Arizona State University published their research on the topic of Psychological Science. They found “The literature on resilience and posttraumatic growth has been instrumental in highlighting the human capacity to overcome adversity by illuminating that there are different pathways individuals may follow. Although the theme of strength from adversity is attractive and central to many disciplines and certain cultural narratives, this claim lacks robust empirical evidence.”

The Problem of Our Memories of Past Events

 Researchers Meghan Owens and colleagues, in their published research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, have found that people aren’t very good at accurately remembering what they were like before a traumatic event. Or participants will say they’ve grown from the event when, in fact, they’re still struggling. Their reports of growth don’t always match what their friends and family think and may not reflect actual changes in their behaviors.

Some psychologists would argue that telling others (and ourselves) how we’ve benefited from past trauma can be a way to cope with the pain you’re still experiencing. Western culture permits little time to grieve; eventually, the expectation is that people are supposed to “get over it and move on, ” they say.

The best-designed studies examining growth have found that how much people believed they had changed following a traumatic experience was not associated with how much they changed over time.

Researchers have discovered that traumatic events frequently have detrimental long-term effects, rather than being empowering. Toxic stress can be brought on by adverse childhood experiences, which medical professionals classify as poverty, abuse, neglect, and other traumas. In research that was published in 2012, Harvard scientists discovered that persons who had experienced abuse as children had, on average, a 6% volume loss in the hippocampi, a region of the brain that is involved in learning and memory. The prefrontal cortex, which is connected to social behaviour and decision-making, the cardiovascular system, and the immunological system are also harmed by toxic stress.

As a result, childhood traumas raise risks for a variety of issues, including cancer, heart disease, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, STIs, poor academic performance, substance addiction, fetal demise, and teen pregnancy. In the United States, more than 22% of children have faced two or more negative experiences, according to the 2011–2012 National Survey of Children’s Health. More than 61 percent of California adults, according to a report from the Center for Youth Wellness, had at least one negative childhood experience. Those who had four or more were five times more likely to experience depression, three times more likely to binge drink or engage in risky sexual behaviour, and nearly two times more likely to develop cancer.

A 2009 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that people who had six or more adverse childhood experiences died, on average, 20 years sooner than those who had none.

By perpetuating the belief that pain is edifying, we place the onus on survivors to heal themselves — and we deemphasize the value of prevention and support services. Suffering is not what fortifies the soul or clears our vision. What makes people stronger is working with others to overcome trauma. Giving and receiving help gives suffering meaning, not the suffering alone.

When it comes to accepting the idea that overcoming hardship typically results in personal development and resilience, we should proceed with extreme care. Think about the message it conveys: Long-term, suffering is beneficial, and trauma survivors are more resilient than non-survivors. It is difficult to move past trauma. For instance, the trauma of some disasters, like the death of a child or spouse, never completely vanishes.

Some people go on to publicly admit that they are still having trouble months or even years after losing a loved one. These people might be perceived as “weak” or as having something “wrong” with them if the proverb “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” were true.

Our culture also enjoys highlighting the “heroes” who have overcome disasters, pain, and difficulty with the underlying message that anyone can. The issue with that notion is that it ignores what is required: institutional mental health care and support networks for trauma survivors.

Here’s what we do know from the best science that’s been done: People can indeed grow from adversity. They can become stronger, improve the quality of their relationships and increase their self-esteem. But it probably doesn’t happen nearly as often as most people and some researchers believe.

What’s more, not everyone will grow in the same way and at the same speed. People will continue to need the help and social support of their families, friends and communities in the wake of a traumatic event. The availability of these resources in determining whether people do grow.

A Personal Perspective

I have a personal perspective on this issue. My family spent almost four years as POWs as prisoners of the Japanese in WWII in an internment camp in Hong Kong. I was born in that camp. We survived that ordeal, but the damaging physical and psychological effects stayed with my family until the present day. While we survived, none of us believe that we were stronger as a result of the experience.

 

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