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Going through some hard times may make people tougher

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December 16, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • A couple looks over their burned home in Alpine, Calif., in 2001; a study finds that experiencing some traumatic events in a lifetime may make people tougher.
A couple looks over their burned home in Alpine, Calif., in 2001; a study… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

During the holidays people can experience an enormous amount of stress, even more so these days with a bad economy thrown in. But a study finds that having some adverse experiences in the past may make you mentally tougher.

A meta-analysis of studies that looked at how traumatic events affect mental health and well-being found a pattern: The number of adverse experiences may determine whether someone becomes more resilient and better able to handle what life throws at him or her. Those on opposite ends of the spectrum -- people who had no or few hardships or many adversities -- generally had worse coping skills than those who had some bad times, such as a serious illness or injury to themselves or a loved one, a death in the family or a divorce.

In one study researchers found that among people with chronic back pain, those with some adversity in their past were less functionally impaired compared to those with a great deal of past trauma, or no major traumas.

The middle group also had fewer doctor visits related to back pain and were less likely to use prescription painkillers.

Why do those with low to moderate levels of hardships have more resilience to handle major or minor difficulties? Study author Mark Seery of the University at Buffalo in New York suggests there could be a number of factors at play, including having a sense of mastering past hurdles, feeling in control, building social support networks and stimulating cell growth in areas of the brain that relate to coping.

"Negative events have negative effects," Seery said in a news release. "I really look at this as being a silver lining. Just because something bad has happened to someone doesn't mean they're doomed to be damaged from that point on."

The study was published recently in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

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