What Doesn’t Kill Us: Tough Times and Human Resilience

Conventional wisdom dictates that the more tough times you’ve seen, the more psychological baggage you carry with you. So a long-term study, which culminated in 2004 and will soon be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, sought to bear this out. The verdict? In some ways, the conventional wisdom is correct. People who have experienced a very high level of adversity throughout their lives generally end up with more mental health issues and a lower sense of well-being than do people who’ve experienced little to no adversity.

But the relationship between hard times and psychological fallout is not a parallel one. The final data showed what researchers describe as a U-shaped pattern: the happiest people (those with high life satisfaction, low distress levels, etc.) were those in the middle, those who had experienced some lifetime adversity. Trials are certainly difficult, but by overcoming a challenge, people grow. They also gain greater peace of mind, knowing that they are strong and capable of living through adversity. So the adage “what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger” is not far off. The study’s authors hope that the data sparks future exploration of psychological resilience, including how therapists, psychotherapists, and counselors can integrate some people’s natural adaptive qualities into work with their own patients.

This idea of psychological resilience is a hot topic lately after the recent rescue of Chilean miners and, more generally, the return of many troubled veterans from combat. Just because we live through a traumatic experience does not mean we’re in the clear. It can take weeks and months to recover from very personal losses, and some traumas will stay with us for years. But they don’t need to keep people from living satisfied lives. The more we understand about psychological and emotional resilience, the better equipped therapists and counselors will be to support people who’ve lived through adversity and help them find peace and well-being in their own lives.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jose


    October 20th, 2010 at 12:24 PM

    I have always believed that a life without challenges is no good and that challenges and problems only make us stronger.Now if these challenges and problems are not too hard and still help you grow stronger then it surely sounds like a great thing in disguise.

  • rebecca


    October 20th, 2010 at 1:21 PM

    Unless you’ve faced challenges yourself, you cannot grasp how it feels to rise above them. Maybe it’s nice to go through life and never have to deal with adversity, but it would be very boring!

  • Stan


    October 20th, 2010 at 1:56 PM

    Having to handle too much over a short period of time can break you for sure. Five years ago I faced the death of a close relative, loss of my well paid job and subsequently my home all within eight months. What that time has given me is a greater appreciation of what I do have in my life and to take nothing for granted.

  • LUKE


    October 20th, 2010 at 3:07 PM

    @Stan:I understand what you must have gone through. But lets hope for the best in future and you know sometimes when you feel like so much is going wrong,something happens and everything changes for the good.Here’s wishing that the same happens to you buddy.

  • geraldine


    October 20th, 2010 at 5:07 PM

    I think the best therapists who have suffered through tough times themselves. When your life has ran smoothly with no major upheavals, how can you possibly relate to the suffering of your clients? An education from books pales in comparison with an education from life itself.

  • Callie


    October 20th, 2010 at 8:19 PM

    Sincerely Stan, congratulations to you for weathering those storms so well. I think I would have crawled into a corner and not came out. I get way too upset for too long too easily.

  • Brett


    October 21st, 2010 at 4:39 AM

    I have experienced this same thing in my own life. There was a time when it felt like nothing was going right, that my whole life was falling apart.

    But I had some wonderful friends and family who cared enough about me to not allow me to give up. They pushed me to keep going. And fighting through that adversity gave me the will to be a success again and to overcome all of that crap that I had let into my life.

    As a result of that kind of fight, I felt so good about myself and what I was able to do. It did make me feel stronger, like there wad nothing that I could not accomplish.

    Maybe everyone needs that kind of motivation every now and then, not to bring them down but to shhow them just how far they can come to win out over it.

  • Tiger


    October 21st, 2010 at 6:46 AM

    Although problems do come every person’s way it is important for each one of us to adapt to them and try and find comfort in things and people around us and ultimately get rid of those problems.That is the true triumph in this world.

  • Hugh


    October 21st, 2010 at 8:38 AM

    Is psychological resilience related to nature and/or nurture? I was raised to be very tough and I am. There’s nothing that fazes me. I can handle pain like no-one I know, both physical and mental. My father taught me that only the strong survive. So did he build that resilience into me?

  • Judy


    October 21st, 2010 at 4:58 PM

    We all choose how we look back on the difficult times we go through. Choose. We can resent them, feel sorry for ourselves, learn from them, bid them adieu without giving them another thought or whatever. There’s no cookie cutter response to the unpleasantries of life.

  • Caroline C.

    Caroline C.

    October 22nd, 2010 at 10:13 AM

    I cannot in good conscience concur with these findings. I saw my cousin return from Vietnam a haunted man. What didn’t kill him definitely did not make him stronger. He’s never been well since.

  • Chris


    October 22nd, 2010 at 8:46 PM

    Does going it alone makes a difference to your psychological resilience? I’m thinking about those Chilean miners. How many would have exited that mine in such good shape if they had had to endure that disaster by themselves?

  • Paul


    October 24th, 2010 at 10:50 PM

    I would think it would be easier to stay strong mentally if you had others with you for support than if you were trapped alone, yes. I guess that’s why joining a support group works. You’re all in the same boat.

  • Wanderer


    November 1st, 2010 at 5:34 PM

    I became more courageous by doing the very things I needed to be courageous for-first, a little, and badly. Then, bit by bit, more and better. Being avidly-sometimes annoyingly-curious and persistent about discovering how others were doing what I wanted to do. – Audre Lorde

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.