Brown University researchers find what doesn’t kill you may not make you stronger after all

Life is full of adversity, and anyone who has lived a long, accomplished life will tell you that the bad times made the good moments that much better. Indeed, no one’s path is ever completely devoid of setbacks or bumps in the road, which is why so many ideologies and self-help strategies encourage people to find meaning in their struggles.

This approach of using struggles to build resilience can be summed up by the popular and often quoted phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” However, a new study from Brown University is calling into question the validity of that statement. Researchers have found that past stressors and traumatic events usually make people more sensitive and vulnerable to future problems, not more resilient. 

Consequently, the team at Brown has concluded that each traumatic event or major stressor in an individual’s life raises that person’s chances of developing mental health issues.

“We hope that this research will spur interest in the face of the increasing number of natural disasters per year — a major consequence of climate change — such as the devastating earthquake that affected Chile and neighboring countries,” says lead study author Cristina Fernandez, a psychiatric epidemiologist, in a university release. “The immediate global impacts of these catastrophic events on disease, death, and the economy are largely well-recognized. Unfortunately, despite a high disease burden, mental illness has thus far not achieved commensurate visibility, policy attention, or funding.”

The actual research for this study took place in South America, thanks to a collaboration with the University of Concepción in central Chile. In all, 1,160 Chileans were examined on two occasions; once in 2003 and then again in 2011. Chile was hit by the sixth most powerful earthquake ever recorded and then a devastating tsunami in 2010, so those two examination dates (2003, 2011) gave researchers an accurate understanding of how Chileans were doing both before and after those awful events.

In 2003, before the natural disasters, none of the studied Chileans displayed any signs of PTSD or depression. But, by 2011, 9.1% had been diagnosed with PTSD and 14.4% reported dealing with major depressive disorder.

It was also noted that Chileans who had experienced stressors, setbacks, or tragedies before the earthquake or tsunami were at a higher risk of developing PTSD or depression after those events. Reported pre-disaster stressors by these participants included the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, divorce, serious personal injury or illness, legal troubles, and the loss of a valued possession.

Regarding PTSD specifically, the study’s authors calculated that individuals who had dealt with at least four pre-disaster stressors were at an increased risk of developing the condition. For depression, just one pre-disaster stressor was all it took to increase one’s risk, and for each additional stressor that risk increased.

So, while the earthquake and tsunami were super traumatic events that could spark PTSD or depression in anyone, the findings indicate that people who dealt with more stressors and setbacks in their life before these disasters were more susceptible to mental health problems in their wake.

The study’s authors believe their work also applies to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“Unfortunately, the same may well hold true with COVID-19,” comments senior study author Stephen Buka, a professor of epidemiology at Brown’s School of Public Health. “We’re already witnessing how black and Latino Americans are experiencing higher rates of [COVID-19] infections and fatalities. All evidence suggests that disadvantaged groups, who frequently have higher levels of prior life stresses — such as limited finances and job instability — will be most likely to suffer the most from serious mental health conditions following the pandemic.”

Several valuable lessons can be derived from this research, but at the very least, the team behind the study say that their work emphasizes the need for robust, readily accessible mental health services for all citizens of all nations.

“Personal and national mental health preparedness kits, such as the ones utilized in Chile, help mitigate the negative effects of disasters and can serve as a model for other countries,” concludes Benjamin Vicente, a principal investigator of the study from the University of Concepción. “Along with strict building codes, Chile has a national health care service, which includes integrated primary and mental health care centers, most of which have trained personnel to provide disaster coping strategies when needed.”

So, is the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” completely void of truth? Probably not; there are lessons to be learned and self-improvements to be made following traumas and bad times, but the reality of how these events weigh on us is much more complex than simply making “lemonade out of lemons.”

The full study can be found here, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.