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.
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