On the other side of tragedy: Stress may boost resilience

People who endure life-changing stress seem to gain resilience — and think they look younger: study
Stress and resilience
Those who can manage harsh ordeals may later sprout emotional moxie Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

Weathering life’s darkest storms and deepest traumas may equip some older adults with the internal armor to better cope with daily aggravations, researchers reported Wednesday.

While affirming the gritty maxim, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” the authors also assert there’s “no expiration date” on the resilience gained from life-changing, stressful events.

But to turn extreme anguish into eventual, emotional fortitude, a person must accept and manage the pain in healthy ways and not simply try to block it, said Dr. Bonnie McGregor, a psychologist and public health researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“The trick is when you have these hardships, rather than avoid or deny the feelings, you’ve got to work through them. That’s how you get stronger,” said McGregor, who was not involved in the new study. “It’s like an emotional muscle that gets stronger with use.” 

McGregor’s own research has shown that early-stage breast cancer patients who participated in 10 weeks of group relaxation interventions — including cognitive behavioral techniques, coping skills, guided imagery, and meditation — were more able to cope with life stressors afterwards and more apt to have improved immune function.

Dr. Bonnie McGregor
Dr. Bonnie McGregor Fred Hutch file

“You need to allow your feelings because they’re a natural byproduct of your experience,” she said. “But if you avoid it then you’re more likely to experience increased distress in the future because they don’t go away, they just come out sideways — something I see in my clinical practice a lot.

“People who are irritable and cranky and always see the bad in things, always feel victimized; those are people who haven’t processed the adverse experiences that they have been through.”

The new study — conducted by North Carolina State University researchers and published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Science — involved 43 healthy volunteers between the ages of 60 and 96. 

The participants, recruited from community centers in the Raleigh-Durham area, completed questionnaires in their homes for eight consecutive days. Each person was asked to note any major ordeals they’d endured in the previous year, (like the death of a loved one), any stressors they’d experienced during the eight days tracked, and how old they thought they looked.

Researchers initially hypothesized that older adults might be uniquely vulnerable to stress — they might have fewer cognitive resources to help them cope with routine anxieties. Instead, the ability to ride out life’s biggest bumps indicated who responded better to daily frustrations, the study found.

Participants who had not withstood a major life stressor in the past year were more apt to feel significantly older on stressful days, but participants who had experienced a big stressor were less likely to fluctuate in terms of how old they felt each day, the authors reported.

Perspective gained 

"They were much more stable in response to day-to-day stress," said Jennifer Bellingtier, a Ph.D. candidate in NC State University’s Department of Psychology and lead author of the study.

“You might think that these major life events, oh, you’ve gotten over them and it doesn’t matter anymore,” Bellingtier said in a phone interview. “But what we’re seeing is that actually they do matter and they can affect your daily pattern.

“In our case, it was actually somewhat hopeful in that people who’ve had these major, life-event stressors, perhaps they’ve learned to put things in perspective more and so are not as responsive to the daily stresses,” Bellingtier said.

While the study focused on older adults, Bellingtier agreed it’s possible younger adults might react similarly: “There is something to be said from the perspective gained by working through a major life stressor, which could apply to all of us.”

'A better person' 

Like 40-year-old wife and mom Nikki Austin of Pasco, Washington. In November 2013, she lost her son, Matthew, 11, to incurable brain cancer. She still feels emotionally fragile, she said, but that sensation has improved during the past two years.

“Certainly, going through something like we’ve gone through, you don’t come out the other side the same person. I know that’s true for me. In a lot of ways, I think that’s a good thing. It’s made me a much better person,” Austin said.

As an example, she mentioned that she and her family recently redid some floors in their home, causing Austin to mutter at one point: “I’m just not equipped to deal with this stuff any more.”

“But then, when I stop myself and look at it and put it into perspective, I think, ‘Really? Come on, it’s floors and baseboards. We can do this.’ I’m always comparing [moments like that] to what we’ve gone through,” Austin said.

“If it’s not losing a child, to me it’s not a big deal. If someone isn’t dying, we’re doing OK.”

The NC State University study also offered another happily quirky finding about participants who’d faced significant life stressors: They thought they looked 20-plus years younger on subsequent, stressful days.

Youthful boost? 

Lead author Bellingtier theorized that daily downers give those folks more opportunities to use and display their reinforced coping skills, perhaps boosting their self esteem in a way that makes them feel younger.

Is that true for all trauma survivors?

“Gosh, that’s bizarre,” Austin said. “I have never at any point felt [like I looked younger]. Stronger, yes. I would feel the opposite, like, this has been a rough three years.”

But that sense of youth in the study group may be tied to the type of daily stress the study participants had experienced, McGregor said.

Based on her research, she said chronic stress can make life feel more crushing and can have negative health effects. Acute stress can make people feel healthier and may allow them to respond to challenges more vigorously.

“Acute stress is actually enhancing. You see enhanced performance. You see enhanced immune function. They could perceive current-life stressors as more of an acute stress, rather than as a chronic, overwhelming stressor. And that might lead them to feel younger,” McGregor said.

“If you find that there’s a stressor in your life where you feel you kind of rise to the challenge, you feel [energized]. Whereas, if you have a stressor where you feel totally overwhelmed and you just kind of collapse in the face of it, it makes you feel tired.”

Do you feel like life's traumas have changed your day-to-day outlook for the better or for the worse? Tell us about it on Facebook.

Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith." 

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