Thursday, September 15, 2016


Q. A group of my friends recently talked about difficult or even traumatic life experiences. Some in the group thought there were positive benefits to their adverse experiences even though these experiences had been very painful and the pain lingered for years afterwards. Others in the group with similar experiences disagreed. They saw no benefits to their painful experiences. What are your thoughts on this?

A. There can be positive benefits to adversity for many people even those who have been through the worst imaginable experiences such as sexual assault, natural disasters or severe health problems. Different events show varying rates of benefit.  For example, one study showed 95 percent of tornado survivors, 70 percent of mass shooting survivors and 35 percent of plane crash survivors reported benefit when asked three years later. 

The perception of benefit was not a Pollyanna type denial of the harm done them. Rather, these survivors reported they had been harmed as well as benefited. The studies, though done independent of each other, showed a similarity in the kind of benefits reported. These included a change in life priorities, increased sense of self-worth, more sensitivity to others, improved relationships and greater faith in God.

An article by J. Curtis McMillen, PhD, titled How People Benefit from Adversity reviewed the literature and the research on this topic.  His main conclusions follow.

1. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Studies suggest that traumatic events can increase self worth if the person discovers as a result of the trauma that they are able to manage difficult new situations or tasks adequately. As a result they view themselves as more capable and they have less concern about future adverse events. Future adversity may even be viewed as a challenge.  

2. Adversity is a wake-up call. An adverse event may begin a process of self examination. Survivors may make conscious changes to achieve greater happiness and improved physical and emotional health. They may eliminate responsibilities, search for a less stressful, more satisfying job, arrange to spend more time with family or vow to enjoy life more.

3. Survivors learn “people aren’t so bad after all.” Two factors lead to changes in the way survivors view others following adversity. One has to do with having received support from others during their trauma. The other is a result of experiencing a greater sense of their own vulnerability. This new experience of vulnerability often leads to greater empathy for others in need. 

4. Survivors find new meaning to life. Survivors’ views on faith in God, life and death may change after adversity. Some survivors find meaning in very painful events by assisting others who have gone through similar trauma or by preventing such trauma from happening to others. 

Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

Robert Schuller in his book Life’s Not Fair but God Is Good puts it this way: “When is trouble not trouble?....When trouble teaches you valuable lessons that you would have been too blind to see, too arrogant to believe, or too stubborn to accept any other way than by this bed of pain; when it slams the door in your face to force you out of a rut that you would never have had the courage to leave...” He also says “Trouble is often God’s way of making us lie down, turn around, sit still, pray, work harder, or start over again!”  Adversity can have benefits!

“Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4 NASB

Blessings, Dottie

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