Why Recovering from Traumatic Events Is Easier for Some


By Catherine A. SandersonAmherst College

Some people seem to have an easier time adapting to adverse experiences and traumatic events than others. What makes a difference? One factor is the community around us. People who have a strong support system, within their immediate family but also a broader community, are more likely to grow following traumatic experiences.

Supportive parents taking care of their sad teen
People with supportive families and stronger personalities recover more easily from bad times. (Image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock)

The Role of Family and Friends

A 2015 study of young people from low-income backgrounds, which is generally linked with experiencing more overall adversity, found that having even one close friendship helps promote resilience. The researchers asked students ages 11 to 19 living in low-income areas to report on their experience of adverse events, the quality of their friendships, and how they typically coped with problems. 

They also measured their overall resilience, including their ability to find meaning in difficult circumstances. For both boys and girls, having a high-quality best friend was associated with coping effectively with problems, such as reframing challenges in a positive way, and greater resilience. So, supportive relationships, with both family members as well as friends, help people manage adversity.

Having a Strong Personality Helps

Another factor helping some people adapt to adverse experiences is clearly personality. Some people have particular traits that seem to help them respond in a positive way, even in the midst of major challenges.

They tend to be high in self-esteem, and to generally have a positive view of themselves and their ability to cope, so when bad things happen, they feel confident things will get better over time. They are also good at managing and regulating their emotions; basically, they are high in emotional intelligence.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to PsychologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The ‘Depression Gene’

Now, here’s a really important question. Where does this ability to focus on the silver lining come from? Well, at least in part, our genes. Researchers in a landmark 2003 study found what came to be called “the depression gene” when examining the link between experiencing stressful life events such as unemployment, abuse, and serious injuries and rates of depression. 

For people with one version of a particular gene called SLC-6-AA4, which codes for a serotonin receptor, experiencing more negative life events increases the risk of developing depression. In fact, nearly half of those who had experienced four or more stressful life events became depressed. They were also more likely to have thought about attempting suicide.

Depressed woman sitting on her bed suffering from insomnia
“The depression gene” causes people to experience more depression when facing hard times. (Image: Stock-Asso/Shutterstock)

But for people with another version of this serotonin receptor gene, no matter how many stressful life events they had experienced, they were no more likely to become depressed than those who had experienced no stressful life events at all.

This study received a huge amount of attention when it was published because it really suggested that our ability to cope with adverse events is coded for in our genes, for better or for worse.

But some subsequent studies, including one published in 2019 with a much larger sample size and looking at 18 different genes, have failed to replicate these findings. So, it’s frankly not yet clear how much, or how little, our response to adversity is influenced by genetic make-up.

What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger

But what is clear is that people who think about loss in a positive frame, by focusing on what they’ve gained from traumatic experiences, not just what they’ve taken away, is a good idea. And this is a fundamentally important point, because, at some point, we will all experience traumatic events, be it the death of a loved one, a serious illness or injury, or a divorce. It’s impossible to go through life avoiding all bad experiences.

Silhouette of a young woman showing strength after overcoming
When people overcome bad events, they become immunized against future challenges. (Image: KieferPix/Shuterstock)

But people who can control how they choose to see these tremendously difficult experiences can also go through them really easier and faster. In short, traumatic events, when overcome, may help immunize people against future stressors.

Developing Coping Strategies

We learn from experience that we have the strength to navigate tough situations, and that belief is tremendously helpful when we later encounter other stressors in daily life. Experiencing adverse events also gives us the opportunity to develop and practice strategies for coping with future challenges.

But keep in mind that there are, of course, limits to the value of adversity. After all, people who experience a high number of traumatic events (more than six) are worse off than those who experience only a moderate number of events.

Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped from her Utah home at age 14 and spent nine months experiencing many difficult events, and months of physical and psychological abuse, before finally being rescued, later said,

I’m a stronger person than I would have been. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, though. I don’t think anybody needs to become strong that way.

Common Questions about Why Recovering from Traumatic Events Is Easier for Some

Q: How do supportive family and friends help people overcome their trauma easier?

According to a study in 2015, having close friendships helps people overcome their traumatic events easier than those who don’t have any. Based on this study, having supportive families is also directly associated with managing adversity and coping effectively with hard experiences.

Q: How does positive thinking help people go through their tough times?

Positive people who think positively even in their traumatic events are more successful at moving forward. These people concentrate not only on the loss itself but on what they gain from it. They also control how they choose to see difficult situations, and that’s why going through the circumstances becomes easier for them.

Q: What is the SLC-6-AA4 gene?

SLC-6-AA4 is a particular gene that codes for serotonin receptors. People who have one version of this gene develop more depression and even think about committing suicide when facing more than four traumatic events. Still, the other version of this gene has the opposite effect, causing people to act positively facing hard times.

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