You raise one of the most intriguing questions in modern resilience science: Can adversity be good for development? The answer appears to be yes, depending on the timing and nature of the stresses. But it is important to note that it is a person's adaptive responses to life's challenges that are beneficial, not the exposure to adversity itself. Beneficial responses have been called steeling effects, stress inoculation and post-traumatic growth.
Extreme deprivation or stress can clearly cause lasting life consequences. Yet many individuals endure, recover and thrive in the aftermath of devastating events. A few, such as Malala Yousafzai, Stephen Hawking or Oprah Winfrey, even become famous. What distinguishes them?
An individual's resilience can be viewed as the capacity to adapt to adversity at a given point. Resilience is not innate, nor is it fixed. It can fluctuate throughout a person's lifetime and is influenced by a complex set of adaptive processes. Many of these protective systems improve with experience or require challenges to reach their full potential. On a biological and environmental level, our capabilities to fight off infections and respond to stress are both shaped by experience. For instance, we vaccinate our children to promote immunity to dangerous pathogens.
Similarly, exposure to manageable levels of psychological stress can improve future adaptation abilities. It is important to remember, however, that too much adversity can deplete the resources any child or adult needs to muster resilience. There is psychological and neurobiological evidence that prolonged or overwhelming stress can wear down our body and mind.
An exciting frontier of resilience science focuses on the complex interactions of genes, neurobiology, social relationships, culture and life experiences in developing our adaptive capacity. Studies of adversity in early childhood document its influences on gene expression, brain development and the calibration of stress-response systems. Scientists have also demonstrated the biological effects of good parenting and the efficacy of interventions that target caregiving for restoring normal stress regulation or boosting resilience.
As our knowledge grows, the core questions about resilience are shifting. Investigators are increasingly asking what kinds of experiences are harmful or beneficial for whom, under what conditions and when—and, concomitantly, what works to foster human capabilities for responding well to the inevitable vicissitudes of life.
Question submitted by Rowena Kong via e-mail