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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Resilience and Trauma

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 19th 2010

Resilience and TraumaHave you ever noticed that some people can go through adverse events and emerge feeling stronger and more resilient than before while others suffer mental health problems including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? A study, "Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability and Resilience," is about to be published in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This was a longitudinal study done on a large sample of people over several years and it supported the old saying that, "whatever does not kill us makes us stronger."

Here is a list of some of the negative events the sample population experienced:

Negative events included:

Serious illness,
relationship stress,
disasters like fires, floods, etc. 

Whether or not a person emerges from a crisis with emotional damage depends on a number of factors:

1. The depth and severity of the crisis.
2. The number and severity of crises accumulated over a life time prior to the latest trauma.
3. In fact, moderate to mild prior events can actually strengthen a person to meet the new crisis.

In other words, the answer is yes, adversity and trauma cause emotional damage, unless a person had a life of moderate prior trauma.

It is interesting to note that this study found that the absence of crises or negative events, does not protect against PTSD or other emotional difficulties. There is a mid point between no negative events and severe events that seems to strengthen resilience rather than weaken it.

This is consistent with a finding Rollo May, late clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, made many years ago. While conducting research for his doctoral dissertation, he worked in the slums of one of the major U.S. cities. The study was done of High School kids many of whom were not depressed or mentally despite having experienced abuse, neglect, abandonment and rejection from  parents. May, in his study, discovered that these kids received lots of emotional support from neighbors, other youngsters who came from the same type of background, and the neighborhood in which they lived. Rather than feeling particularly deprived and harmed, they experienced lots of support from their environment.

Yet another study done of former Ugandan child soldiers, ages ranging from 11 to 17 years of age, who were recruited to engage in armed combat. Despite the fact that these children and teens fought in bloody conflicts, including slaughtering unarmed civilians, not all emerged with PTSD, depression and other mental disorders. Among the factors that mitigated against emotional damage despite the extreme trauma of these events were:

Lower exposure to domestic violence,
Lower number of guilt thoughts,
Less motivation to seek revenge,
Coming from better socioeconomic situations in the family, More perceived spiritual support.

The results of all of this research suggests that growing up in a stable family environment and experiences of mild or moderate life crises, all serve to help people become more resilient with the capacity to withstand a lot of trauma that life sometimes brings.

So, just because something negative happened does not mean your child will be damaged.

It is important for us to build strong families and not over protect children while they are growing and developing. Also, some spirituality seems to help.

Your comments and questions are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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