Is the Expression “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” True?
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 problem with the saying, is that it is not generally true for most people, according to recent research.
The saying, originally penned by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was actually “That which does not kills us makes us stronger.”
In our society, there is a widespread belief that trauma and tragedy can be good for your personal growth. On a daily basis we hear the expression widely used by self-help gurus and media personalities as a truism and proof of one’s resilience. In some cases, writers actually say it’s only the courgeous people that become stronger through adversity, implying that weak people don’t.
We are told: “You’ll appreciate life more,” “You’ll feel grateful for what you have in life,” “You learn some important lessons and become more resilient.”
Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have written about how, after experiencing loss or trauma, people reported feeling a greater appreciation for life, closer to their friends and family, stronger, more spiritual and more inspired. They dubbed this phenomenon “post-traumatic growth.”
Their findings argues 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.
Their research prostulates that trauma and tragedy will also help us make sense of our own lives. Psychologists have demonstrated that we like to narrate our lives in terms of the challenges we’ve confronted and the setbacks we’ve overcome, rather than our successes and good times. Most popular literature and movies illustrate this. We like to believe good things can emerge from a bad turn of events because it’s often a key element of the stories we tell about our own lives.
The idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is based on the theory that by going through difficult experiences, people build up their strength for the next, possibly more painful event that may occur. This can be a comforting thought, especially during a trauma — that all of the pain one may be suffering will be rewarded with a stronger sense of inner courage and the ability to take on the next painful life event.
Tragedy and trauma can also be viewed as a badge of honor, almost an accomplishment, to survive a terrible time feeling more brave, more powerful and more ready to take on the next battle.
There is some research to support the aphorism. Stephen Joseph, PhD, 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 were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.”
The concept of post-traumatic growth that Joseph endorses, offers a strengths-based perspective. Research from Lawrence G. Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina Charlotte found that survivors of trauma often experienced profound healing, a stronger spiritual faith and philosophical grounding.
However, some research has shown that the expression is not accurate. According to some researchers, past stressful experiences do not create resilience to future trauma.
Recent research suggests the opposite is true: Past traumatic events sensitize people to future traumas, increasing their chances of developing mental health disorders.
For example, several U.S. government reports indicate that between 15 to 30 percent of U.S. veterans returning from military action suffer from PTSD. Their experiences in traumatic situations did not make them stronger.
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 were at a greater risk of developing PTSD compared to those who had experienced few or no prior stressors.
“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 neighborhood 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 described how , 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. They found that participants who were near the World Trade Center on 9/11 had significantly higher amygdala 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 Ganzel, “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.”
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 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 spiritual decline.”
In a major study by Judith Mangelsdorf and colleagues, published in Psychological Bulletin, they conducted a meta-analysis of the after effects 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 in 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.”
Is there actually value in pain and suffering?
Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have researched and published about how, after experiencing loss or trauma, people reported feeling a greater appreciation for life, closer to their friends and family, stronger, more spiritual and more inspired. They dubbed this phenomenon “post-traumatic growth.”
The message of their research shows there’s a silver lining to tragedy. It’s also consistent with the biblical theme of redemption, which says that all pain and suffering will ultimately lead to freedom.
Their research can also help us make sense of our own lives. Psychologists have demonstrated that we like think and reflect on our lives as a story. The storry 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 the trauma or unfortunate events.
The problem of our memories of past events
Jayawickreme and Infurna say that other researchers 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 actually changed over time.
Jayawickreme and Infurna say that those who reported that they had experienced the most personal growth in the wake of a tragedy were more likely to be still experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Researchers have found that, far from being empowering, traumatic incidents often have long-term negative consequences. Adverse childhood experiences — which health professionals define as poverty, abuse, neglect and other traumas — can result in toxic stress, which wreaks havoc on the body. In work published in 2012, Harvard researchers found that people who had been mistreated as children had, on average, a 6 percent loss in volume in their hippocampi, a part of the brain involved with learning and memory. Toxic stress also damages the prefrontal cortex, which is linked to social behavior and decision-making, and the cardiovascular and immune systems.
The result is that childhood traumas increase risks for cancer, heart disease, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, sexually transmitted diseases, poor school performance, substance abuse, fetal death and teen pregnancy, among other problems. According to the 2011–2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, more than 22 percent of U.S. children have dealt with two or more adverse experiences. In 2014, the Center for Youth Wellness released a report finding that more than 61 percent of California adults had at least one adverse childhood experience — and that those with four or more were five times as likely to suffer from depression, three times as likely to binge drink or engage in risky sexual behavior, and almost two times as likely to get 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.
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.
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.
We should exercise a great deal of caution in believing and embracing the notion that personal growth and resilience are typical outcomes of adversity.
Think about what it communicates: Suffering is good in the long run, and people who have experienced trauma are stronger than those who haven’t.
Moving on from trauma is not easy to do. For example, the trauma of certain tragedies, such as the death of a child or a spouse, never fully goes away.
And then there are those who are open about the fact that they’re struggling after a loss months, even years later. If “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” were true, these people might be viewed as “weak,” or seen as having something “wrong” with them.
And our culture likes to profile the “heroes” who have recovered from tragedies, trauma and adversity, with the implicit message that anyone else can do the same.
The problem with that belief is that it neglects what is truly necessary: Institutional mental health services and communities of people who support those who have experienced trauma.
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.
Stories of growth stemming from trauma are certainly powerful. They can serve as inspiration for our own lives. But we need to do better research to know whether such stories are the norm or the exception.