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The benefits of adversity

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

No one wants to experience tragedy and trauma but can there be an upside to the hardships and turmoil that life sometimes throws at us? Is there a silver lining to suffering?

There's a growing school of thought that negative and challenging events can ultimately have positive outcomes leading to inner strength, growth and self-knowledge.

Adversity encompasses a whole range of incidents from the death of loved ones and divorce to accidents, tragedies and natural disasters. Experiencing such an event may lead to a whole range of negative emotions like anger, fear and sadness, but also more long-term effects like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder ( PTSD).

However, recent studies have reflected on the positives that can come out of adversity - what's often referred to as post-traumatic growth.

Dr Steve Taylor, psychology lecturer and author of 'Out of the Darkness: From Turmoil to Transformation', says: "There's been a lot of research into the effects of adversity, be it bereavement, divorce, or close calls with death. In a study a couple of years after the 1987 Zeebrugge ferry disaster which killed around 200 people, half of the survivors reported positive benefits."

So German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche may have been right with his famous dictum: 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger'. But there are limits.

Research in 2010 at the University of Buffalo in New York suggested that adverse experiences do appear to "foster subsequent adaptability and resilience," but only to a point.

The study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined the experiences of more than 2,000 people over several years. It found that people who'd had a few adverse life events reported better wellbeing and mental health then those with frequent hardships or no history of adversity. So a few negative events seemed to enhance resilience, but too many can overwhelm a person's coping ability.

So what are the benefits?

If you've been through a tough event it can in time, for some people, lead to personal growth, inner strength, thankfulness and extra determination.

"Adversity can lead to people appreciating their lives more, they can develop increased self esteem by overcoming challenges and setbacks or some people may use the experience as a challenge and approach adversity as a way of becoming more focused, sharper in their thinking and more driven," says chartered psychologist Gill Bond.

"It focuses the mind. If we think we are going to lose something, be it our identity, our life, our home, it's easier to work out what is very important to you," says coaching psychologist Jessica Chivers. "I think a striking life event can make you feel special and convey a sense of meaning that wasn't there before."

"People are more grateful for the little things in life, their perspective changes and they tend to become less materialistic and more altruistic," says Steve.

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