• BLOG | Is Nietzsche correct? Does trauma make us stronger?

    January 7, 2019 | Andrew Stead
  • “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” - Friedrich Nietzsche

    Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most influential and contentious philosophers of Modern Age. As well as being my favourite philosopher of all time, he is renowned for his universal psychological insights. But is his infamous comment on the benefits of trauma simply something you can tell your friends next time they are suffering, or does it have scientific merit?

    Think about the totality of your suffering. Would you erase that from your life or your memory just to keep the happiest moments? Nietzsche didn’t think that’s how it worked.

    Nobody seeks pain. We all want pleasure. Fine food, money, happy relationships. Nobody is asking for burnt dinners, austerity, conflict, long lunches with the in-laws. We use any kind of tricks to numb the pain: food, alcohol, drugs, sex. But what makes us a better version of ourselves?

  • When trauma is not the end, it is the beginning

    Professor Stephen Joseph worked extensively with survivors of trauma and sufferers of post-traumatic stress. His studies cover a great range of traumas - separation, assault, illness, grief, accidents, natural disasters, terrorism – and highlight that “those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living”. (Joseph, 2012)

    Research from the University of North Carolina demonstrates how survivors of trauma often experienced profound healing, a stronger spiritual faith and philosophical grounding. (Calhoun, Tedeschi, 2102). The positives factors include new possibilities, relating to others, personal strength, spiritual change, and appreciation of life to measure improvements.

    Evidence also suggests that women are better able to benefit from trauma than men (Calhoun, Tedeschi, 1996).

  • The Marshmallow Dilemma

    In a 1960s experiment Walter Mischel, a Stanford professor, offered children a simple dilemma: one marshmallow immediately or 100% extra if they could wait 15 minutes. The clips of the children torn between instant happiness or an excruciating test of patience (and trust) is amusing. Many couldn’t even wait until the researcher left the room. Others staring at the sweet treat like it was true love.

    But what’s interesting are the results registered years later. The children who had the willpower to delay gratification became more cognitively and socially competent adolescents, achieving higher performance and coping better with frustration and stress (Mischel et al., 1989). As time went by they also grew into healthier and wealthier adults (Eigsti et al., 2006).

  • Resilience: the muscle you can train now!

    Don’t feel bad if you’d have eaten all the marshmallows in the blink of an eye - so would I! Or if you’d have given up your dreams of success and headed straight back to Greece.

    Resilience works like a muscle. We can train it, build its strength over months to achieve our goals without feeling like we might explode from the fear of failure. Science helpfully demonstrates that we can actually improve our levels of resilience and self-esteem. (Niiya et al., 2004). 

    Embrace your pain, don’t push it away. Sit with it like an old friend. Make peace with it. Use it as a point of profound self-development. Because it transpires that science supports what Nietzsche said – That which doesn’t kill does make you stronger!