Finding the Emotional Benefits in Adversity

Martin Luther King, Jr. said the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. King, of course, was speaking of adversity and the power to overcome it.

The ability to bounce back from adversity is called resiliency and it has numerous emotional benefits. While it seems some people seem to naturally cope better when faced with challenges, everyone can become more resilient.

Studies show that adversity early in life can be a risk factor for a range of negative outcomes. However, there is also evidence that some children do remarkably well in spite of serious threats to their normal development. Project Competence, a 20-year study, found that the extraordinary resilience and recovery power of children does not arise from rare or special qualities, but from everyday, ordinary experiences.

In the book The Resilient Self, authors Steven and Sybil Wolin describe a model of development they call the challenge model. The Wolins says that while hardships may hurt children, they often develop considerable strengths as they struggle to prevail. They list seven strengths associated with the resiliency: insight, independence, relationships, initiative, creativity, humor, and morality.

The emotional benefits of adversity do not just apply to children. Resilient adults are better able to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning, and have the capacity for generating positive experiences and emotions. In a study following September 11, those participants who were more resilient were less depressed than the national average (in non-clinical samples). Adults who manage adversity well tend to use active coping mechanisms when dealing with stressful situations.

Experts in the area of adversity and resilience say it's not so much what we do, it's how we do what we do that counts. One of the keys to successfully overcoming adversity is having the ability to balance stress and emotions. Recognizing your emotions and expressing them appropriately helps prevent you from becoming stuck in depression and anxiety.

Adequate and positive social support is critical to maintaining good physical and emotional health. Resilient adults have strong support networks. Social support enhances your natural resilience to stress and helps protect you from developing trauma-related psychopathology. While the size of your network and the frequency of social interactions within your network are important, having high-quality relationships is a better predictor of good emotional health. Resilient adults also tend to have a strong moral or spiritual sense of their purpose and future.


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Wolin, Steven, MD, and Wolin, Sybil, Ph.D. "The Resilient Self: How Survivors of Troubled Families Rise Above Adversity." Web. Web.

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National Writing Project. "Resilience: Overcoming Adversity and Thriving." Web. 21 October 2009.