How Suffering Fosters Post-Traumatic Growth (Which Is a Good Thing)

Let’s face it: Pain is unavoidable. Three-quarters of us will experience at least one traumatic event in our lives, according to recent research by the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, MI.

We know, we know, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger—but that’s not just a cliché. Whether you’re sore after leg day, frustrated at the office, or heartbroken after a breakup, there’s some serious science behind how suffering really does benefit us.

According to the experts, we often experience physical pain (burning quads during kickboxing class) and emotional pain (a rough breakup) as suffering. But these times of struggle or hardship (both the physical and emotional kinds) aren’t all bad. In fact, a lot of the time, well, they can turn out to be kind of awesome. “Any type of suffering can be productive and channeled into a growing experience,” says Adolfo Profumo, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in New York. Don’t believe us? These examples prove pain leaves you stronger in the end. (These Celebrities Share How Past Traumas Made Them Stronger.)

During Your Cardio…
Certain studies have shown that suffering through a kick-ass workout—like those long runs or killer CrossFit classes—isn’t just masochistic. It can actually help your performance. One study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that endurance runners who used ibuprofen to help them manage pain during a race weren’t any faster and actually had a longer recovery time than runners who didn’t take anything. Why did the pain killers hurt the runners more? Normally, when we exercise, the stress causes our bodies to produce more collagen, which eventually leads to stronger bones and tissues. When you try to skip the suffering by popping an ibuprofen, your body doesn’t have this response and doesn’t build strength the way it’s supposed to. (It’s one of the 5 Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Workout.)

In another study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin gave cyclists a drug that totally blocked pain in the lower half of their body during an endurance test, nearly nixing their physical suffering. Again, they found cyclists who felt less pain didn’t actually perform any better. Turns out, the physical pain of the workout is necessary for properly judging effort.

As for Emotional Pain…
Studies have shown that the same neural pathways are activated in an emotional trauma, like a breakup, as physical trauma, like a broken leg. (Going through a major change? Here, 8 of Life’s Biggest Shake-Ups, Solved.)

“Suffering can often move people to action,” says Franklin Porter, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City. “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to climb your way up.”

In some of the earliest studies on suffering, scientists found that the majority people who survive traumatic events (like death, war, or natural disasters) reported a greater sense of inner strength, deeper relationships, and progress toward fulfilling goals than they had before the suffering. This phenomenon of emotional self-evolution in response to struggle is what Profumo refers to as the “experience of becoming.” It’s a lot like the way we have to break our muscles down to rebuild them even stronger.

How to Reap the Benefits
Let’s be real: Suffering—whether it’s getting over a loss or pushing through a hard sweat sesh—sucks. We want to get it over with ASAP. But to really cash in on the strength-building benefits, the idea is not to bypass the process, according to Profumo. Patience is key.

A lot of times that means you have to allow yourself to feel the pain: Vent to a friend about your demanding boss, cry after a breakup, let out that grunt of frustration at the gym. (Seriously! Researchers at Drexel University found that people were 10 percent stronger when they let out a yell during a physical task.)

When we process the pain, we reap the rewards. “Most goals and accomplishments could not be completed without periods of suffering,” says Ellen Schnier, a clinical social worker and therapist in Connecticut. “Suffering builds character by giving us a sense that if we can get through times of suffering, we can accomplish anything.” (Plus, you’ll reap these 4 Ways Expressing Yourself Boosts Your Health.)

But beware of letting suffering get sadistic rather than strengthening, and, as always, never push yourself to the point of injury in your workout. “Suffering becomes a negative cycle when we see it as a reflection of our self-worth or value,” says Schnier. It’s all about mindset. If we see hard times as an opportunity to evolve (which, yep, sometimes even involves a rest day!), they can be a big catalyst for positive change. Tell that to yourself next time your calves feel like they’re on fire while walking down a flight of stairs after leg day. 

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