Life's Stresses Bring More Good Than Previously Thought, Studies Show

December 12, 1996

DAVIS, Calif. - The clouds of life's most trying and traumatic times - divorce, job loss, grief - may have more of a silver lining than previously thought by psychologists, according to three studies being published this month by a University of California, Davis, researcher and her colleagues.

For years, stressful life events generally have been considered damaging, both physically and emotionally. Yet the majority of the 2,000 people involved in the new studies said they learned from their lowest moments, and could point to advantages gained through their pain, says Carolyn Aldwin, a professor in the UC Davis human and community development department.

Along with a graduate student and a Brandeis University professor, Aldwin conducted the research being published in the Journal of Personality.

The three studies are the first to show quantitatively, and in an "ordinary" population, the positive effects of stress, and how people draw upon past experiences to deal with current problems, Aldwin says. Most previous studies have shown anecdotally that in three "coping" research areas - illness, bereavement and trauma - people perceived positive benefits from undergoing extremely stressful events.

Aldwin notes that the three studies are preliminary, and that longitudinal studies are needed to learn more about the causes of people's coping responses. Data collection for the studies was supported by the National Institute on Aging, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, Hatch Funds and a UC Davis New Faculty Research Grant.

The researchers studied 2,000 people in all, including older men who participated in an ongoing study of aging, men and women participating in a health and personality styles study, and college graduates aged 23 to 62. Study participants responded to questionnaires and to in-person interviews. Interestingly, Aldwin says, the results from the three studies of very different groups of people were nearly identical.

"Regardless of their age, gender or whether they lived on the East Coast or the West Coast, the vast majority of people could see something positive out of the worst moments of their lives: only 20 percent saw low points as exclusively negative," Aldwin says.

"This shows hope. People learn so much about their strengths, their friendships, resources they have, through stressful life events. Sometimes, it's spirituality that emerges. We've lost sight of the fact that stress is not always bad."

Aldwin's work provides a more balanced picture of the effects of stress than that depicted by many scholars over the years, says Glen Elder, a professor of life course studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Elder has studied the life experiences of Depression-era children and of World War II veterans.

"Bad events do not merely have bad effects. They may also have growth outcomes, such as when a combat veteran develops resilient qualities and learns to hold his job by managing war-generated symptoms," Elder says. "Aldwin's work helps us to avoid biases by considering both outcomes."

The studies by Aldwin and co-authors Karen Sutton, a UC Davis graduate student, and Margie Lachman, a Brandeis University professor, included several key findings:

· People perceive continuity across stressful situations. More than 80 percent of those studied said they drew upon a prior experience to help them cope with a current problem;

· The overwhelming majority of those who said they had experienced serious low points in their lives perceived long-term effects from having had those difficulties, yet "what was so surprising was that so few saw the effects as primarily negative," the authors write;

· More than 95 percent of those questioned said they had learned something from their experiences, and the majority said they could turn what were often terrible life episodes to their own advantage; and

· People who were able to derive advantages from their low points reported higher mastery levels and lower levels of depressive symptoms.

Few age differences surfaced in the kinds of resources used to cope or in the long-term outcomes, a finding that surprised the researchers. The studies pointed out that people who perceived primarily negative long-term effects were less likely to draw on a resource, to turn the situation to their advantage and to take action - and were more likely to try to escape from the problem. On the other hand, people who saw positive or mixed long-term effects were more likely to draw upon their experiences, personality and religion as resources to cope, and were more likely to take decisive action to cope and could turn the situation to their advantage.

"What was remarkable is the degree to which people struggled to learn and grow in the midst of despair, and the degree to which they perceived their own personalities as malleable. . . .We suspect that mental health lies in the ability to perceive and activate resources, both internal and external, when faced with challenging problems. While some people clearly have more tangible resources which help them to cope with problems, people appeared to vary in their ability to perceive resources and advantages in stressful situations," Aldwin said.

According to Aldwin, the source of this difference is unclear, "although it is likely to correspond to factors contributing to resiliency in children, namely, intelligence, 'easy' dispositions, and social support" (qualities identified in a 1992 study by well-known resiliency researcher, Emmy Werner, also a UC Davis professor of human development).

Aldwin is the author of "Stress, Coping, and Development: An Integrative Perspective" 1994 (Guilford Press). Her previous studies have focused on aging and on the coping experiences of war veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, among other research areas.

University of California - Davis

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