The benefits of adversity are very, very real

By Saybrook

Score one for Nietzsche:  studies show that what does not kill you actually does make you stronger.  At least in moderation.

A recent report, “Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability, and Resilience” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that yes, when bad experiences happen we do suffer from mental, physical, and spiritual pain – but in that suffering many of us develop a greater understanding of hardship and are more prepared for it when (not if) it comes again.

While the concept has been around ever since Nietzsche first put it into words (if not longer), this is a relatively new area for serious psychological research.  Past research tended to focus on how we reacted to when things fall apart – but not how we recovered. There are a number studies, stories and blogs that tell us that when hit by adversity we just crumble. Our health collapses, we eat terrible food, don’t exercise, fall into despair and hang on to the pain for far too long.  End of story.

But humanistic thinkers and spiritual practitioners have long known there is another chapter.

In addition to Nietzsche I’m reminded of a wonderful book written by Pema Chödrön called When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times that deals with how to overcome adversity. She stated in her book that she had a sign on her wall that read:

 “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us”

Now researchers have caught up, showing that there are benefits to experiencing adversity in life. After a difficult challenge or moment we are less likely to feel pained or challenged next time around.

This is often referred to as resiliency. Resiliency involves having the mental and physical resources that help us deal with challenges in life. Adversity forces us to reach out for help, to create social networks and to realize that we cannot and should not overcome our struggles on our own. Resiliency can make us feel we have a little more mastery in life.

This is not to say that we can’t reach a breaking point in life. There times when life is just too hard. Too much hardship can deplete our toolbox of coping skills and put immense pressure on our families, friends and communities. It may get so bleak that we fall into a sense of hopelessness and losing control. The researchers don’t go into what can be done in these times but others have emphasized a number of “ways through” that include accessing all three of our vital resources: mind, body and spirit. Some ways could include seeking guidance from a therapist, or spiritual advisors;  recognizing our physical limitations;  mediation;  resting;  support groups and most importantly honoring one’s own self worth.

This research also shows that all of our attempts at avoiding pain and suffering may be to our detriment. Avoiding difficult times is not often possibly, but many people they try their best to escape by not taking risks or doing something to numb the pain. Pema Chödrön speaks to this rather well,

“Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape — all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”

Trying to avoid acknowledging or being present with adversity causes us to miss out on some of the greatest lessons in our life. In these times, we often learn about true friendship, and that we are strong, empowered, smart and resourceful. The researchers Seery, Holman and Silver are not endorsing that we set ourselves up for suffering in life. What they have established through research is as much as hardships hurt, they can also bring out the best in us.

I wonder what else Nietzsche was moderately right about.


– Makenna Berry