Posts Tagged ‘post traumatic growth’

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker

history of hardship is not a life asset

Nietzsche got it wrong

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, famously said: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” This notion found life beyond Nietzsche’s–which is ironic, his having been rather short and miserable–and it continues to resonate within American culture.One reason is that suffering, as Freud famously recognized, is an inevitable part of life. Thus we have developed many ways to try to ease it–one of which is bestowing upon it transformative powers (another is by believing in an afterlife, of which Freud disapproved; still another is cocaine, of which he was, for a time, a fan).

Another reason is that American culture, born of trauma and imbued with a hopeful can-do ethos, wants to believe this idea, finding it self-affirming. Once we have acquired a certain belief we tend to see, remember, and report mostly instances and events that support it. This is called confirmation bias.

Thrives on adversity

Another reason we think trauma may be transformative is that we see variants of this process around us. Bacteria that are not killed entirely by an antibiotic will mutate and become resistant to it. People who go through the hardship of training tend to improve their performance. But human beings are not bacteria, and good training is not a traumatic event.Now it is true that, in an evolutionary sense, those who survive a calamity are by definition the fittest. But it is not the calamity that made them so. For our minds, however, the leap is short between seeing the strong emerge from a calamity and concluding that they are strong because of the calamity.

Our brain is a meaning-making machine, designed to sort vast and varied sensory information into coherent, orderly perception, organized primarily in the form of narrative: this happened, which led to that, which ended up so. When two things happen together, we assume they are meaningfully linked, and then we rush to bind them in a quite unholy cause-and-effect matrimony.

When you believe in things that you don’t understand…

This tendency to infer causality from co-occurrence is not limited to humans; caged pigeons, receiving food at random intervals not related to their behavior, will nevertheless repeat any movement they happened to be doing before food appeared. The pigeons become, in a sense, superstitious.

Do not thrive on adversity

As do we. In humans, many common beliefs are based on this error. Some are trivial, like a fan’s belief that wearing his lucky jersey helps his team win. But others are weightier. Because parenting behaviors co-occur with children’s developing personalities, many parents assume that their behaviors actually shape their children’s personalities. The evidence from developmental research overwhelmingly shows that they don’t. In fact, the causality is often reversed, as temperamentally-easy children enable their parents to feel competent. Good children often create good parents.

Our eagerness to ease the pain of suffering by rationalizing it, along with our tendency to look for information supportive of our preexisting beliefs and see meaning and causality in co-occurrence, all help explain how we arrive at our belief in the school of hard knocks.

But the bulk of psychological research on the topic shows that, as a rule, if you are stronger after hardship, it is probably despite, not because of the hardship. The school of hard knocks does little more than knock you down, hard. Nietzschian–and country song–wisdom notwithstanding, we are not stronger in the broken places. What doesn’t kill us in fact makes us weaker.

Developmental research has shown convincingly that traumatized children are more, not less, likely to be traumatized again. Kids who grow up in a tough neighborhood become weaker, not stronger. They are more, not less likely to struggle in the world.

Trauma with lasting effects

And the effect on adults is generally similar. For example, in one recent study, healthy adults viewed fearful and calm faces while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure activity in the amygdale, the part of the brain that forms and stores emotional memories. Half of the participants were within 1.5 miles of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the other half lived at least 200 miles away. Participants who were near the World Trade Center on 9/11 had significantly higher amygdale activity when looking at the fearful faces compared to those who were living more than 200 miles away. “Our findings suggest that there may be long-term neurobiological correlates of trauma exposure, even in people who appear resilient,” said Dr. Barbara Ganzel, the lead researcher, “We have known for a long time that trauma exposure can lead to subsequent vulnerability to mental health disorders years after the trauma. This research is giving us clues about the biology underlying that vulnerability.” When trauma and hardship do leave a mark, it is usually a bruise under the skin, not a notch on the belt.

Not from the School of Hard Knocks

Years ago, during my mandatory army service in Israel, I took part in anti-terrorist training that involved working with the K9 unit. I asked the unit commander where he found those vicious attack dogs of his. Most people, he said, believe that wild street dogs make the best anti-terrorist dogs, having survived the, well, dog-eat-dog world of the mean streets. But the truth is just the opposite. Street dogs are useless for this–or any other–work because they are unpredictable and not trainable. Dogs that have been well cared for, loved, and protected all their lives–those are the best anti-terrorist dog candidates.And this is true for humans as well. Mayhem and chaos don’t toughen you up, and they don’t prepare you well to deal with the terror of this world. Tender love and care toughen you up, because they nurture and strengthen your capacity to learn and adapt, including learning how to fight, and adapting to later hardship.


Resilience after 9/11: Multimodal neuroimaging evidence for stress-related change in the healthy adult brain

Ganzel,  B.L, Kim,  P. Glover, P.H., and  Temple, E. (2008)

Resilience after 9/11: Multimodal neuroimaging evidence for stress-related change in the healthy adult brain

Neuroimage. 2008 April 1; 40(2): 788–795.

Published online 2008 January 29. doi:  10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.12.010


Exposure to psychological trauma is common and predicts long-term physical and mental health problems, even in those who initially appear resilient. Here, we used multimodal neuroimaging in healthy adults who were at different distances from the World Trade Center on 9/11/01 to examine the neural mechanisms that may underlie this association. More than three years after 9/11/01, adults with closer proximity to the disaster had lower gray matter volume in amygdala, hippocampus, insula, anterior cingulate, and medial prefrontal cortex, with control for age, gender, and total gray matter volume. Further analysis showed a nonlinear (first-order quadratic) association between total number of traumas in lifetime and amygdala gray matter volume and function in the whole group. Post hoc analysis of subgroups with higher versus lower levels of lifetime trauma exposure revealed systematic associations between amygdala gray matter volume, amygdala functional reactivity, and anxiety that suggest a nonlinear trajectory in the neural response to accumulated trauma in healthy adults.

To read the paper click here


So Nietzsche WAS right: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, scientists find

So Nietzsche WAS right: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, scientists find

He said what doesn’t kill  you makes you stronger –  and it seems that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was right.

Scientists have found that although traumatic experiences such as losing a loved one can be psychologically damaging, small amounts of trauma can make us more resilient.

In one study, those who experienced many difficult life events were found to be more distressed in general – but the same was true of some who had not faced any.

Those who had experienced some difficulties were the best off.

Other research revealed that people with chronic back pain were more mobile if  they had experienced some serious adversity.

Sufferers who had encountered either a lot or none at all were  more impaired.

Researcher Mark Seery, a psychologist at the University at Buffalo in the U.S., said: ‘A lot of ideas that seem like common sense aren’t supported by scientific evidence.

Indeed, a lot of solid psychology research shows that having miserable life experiences is bad for you.

Wise man: Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher has been proven right

‘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.

‘In fact, 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.’

He suggested that those who go through difficult experiences are given a chance to develop an ability to cope with such situations in the future. 

‘The idea is that negative life experiences can toughen people, making them better able to manage subsequent difficulties,’ he said.

Although he stressed that ‘negative events have negative effects’, Dr Seery added: ‘I really look at this as being a silver lining. Just because something bad has happened to someone doesn’t mean they’re doomed to be damaged from that point on.’

His report on adversity and resilience appears in the latest issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.