We're Only Human

Do Sandy’s storm clouds have a silver lining?

sandy.femaThis morning I heard a radio interview with a resident of one of New York’s storm-ravaged towns. It’s been more than a week since Sandy swept through the eastern seaboard, and locals are just starting to process the long-term implications of this natural disaster. It will be months and months before many homes and businesses are restored, and some communities will never again be the same. Yet this man concluded the interview with this thought: New Yorkers will learn from this experience, he said, and it will make us stronger.

Make us stronger. Many will find these words of little consolation right now, but this is a widely held sentiment, one that reaches far beyond the devastated Mid-Atlantic coastline. It’s a staple in the rooms of addiction recovery, where adversity is seen as a path to spiritual growth, and the words echo through cancer support groups and for many others who are trying to cope with misfortune. Indeed, the thought can be traced back at least to the 19th century, to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who in his final work described the well adjusted person this way: “What does not kill him makes him stronger.”

Was Nietzsche right, and all the heirs to this view that adversity gives us inner strength? Is it really possible that a measure of misfortune might have a psychological silver lining, boosting our resiliency in dealing with future stress? Psychological scientist Mark Seery and his colleagues at the University of Buffalo have been exploring this idea in the laboratory. Nobody believes that relentless bad luck and trouble are beneficial, but these scientists wanted to see if enduring some adversity might increase the ability to cope with pain and emotional pressure.

Here are two of their experiments. In the first, the scientists asked volunteers to immerse their hands in ice-cold water. The idea was to cause unpleasant physical pain, so they could observe who among the volunteers were “catastrophizers.” Catastrophizers are people who exaggerate the pain they are experiencing; they ruminate and become helpless in the face of even moderate discomfort. Such people are known to tolerate less pain, report more pain-related disability, and use more pain killers. So overall it’s not a healthy or adaptive way of coping with stress.

Seery and colleagues were actually interested in those who don’t catastrophize. They believe that people who have experienced a moderate amount of adversity in their lives are less likely to magnify and obsess about their bad fortunes. So they asked all the volunteers about misfortunes they had experienced—the death of a loved one, say, or a physical assault. And in order to test their theory under controlled laboratory conditions, they predicted that those with a moderate number of such misfortunes—compared to volunteers with very few bad experiences, or many—would report less pain and unpleasantness due to the icy water, endure the pain for a longer time, and express fewer negative emotions about the experience.

And that’s what they found. As reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who described lives of moderate adversity were less apt to catastrophize over the ice-water experience. They also reported less pain intensity and unpleasantness during the painful exercise, and fewer negative emotions afterward. In short, those who had known some troubles previously were more resilient in the face of pain, compared to those who had been spared from unhappy experiences in life.

Enduring physical pain is an important and useful measure of emotional resilience, but it’s passive. This first experiment asked only: How much more hardship and affliction will the unfortunate put up with before they protest? The Buffalo scientists wanted to revisit the question with a more active and positive measure of resiliency and coping. So in a second study, they presented volunteers with a demanding test, one that was designed to either threaten or challenge them, depending on their resilience. They used four measures of heart function to get an objective view of the volunteers’ performance in the face of this stress.

Volunteers were made to believe they were taking an important test of non-verbal intelligence, which required them to navigate a computerized obstacle course as rapidly and accurately as possible. They performed this stressful test while strapped to cardiovascular sensors. Afterward, all the volunteers inventoried all the hardships they had experienced in their lives. Again, the scientists predicted that those with some bad experiences would do best—that they would be more likely to see the test as a challenge to be conquered, and that their hearts would reveal this healthy attitude.

And again, that’s what they found. Compared to those who had been spared life’s afflictions, those with some scars showed more positive physiological responses to the test. They saw it as a challenge rather than a threat. In short, it appears that early adversity boosts mental toughness and sense of mastery and control—all important ingredients of psychological resilience. To use Nietzsche’s phrase, these are people who “turned out well.”

Excerpts from Wray Herbert’s two blogs—“Full Frontal Psychology” and “We’re Only Human”—appear regularly in Scientific American Mind and The Huffington Post.

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