An Upside to Adversity?: Moderate Cumulative Lifetime Adversity Is Associated With Resilient Responses in the Face of Controlled Stressors

Psychol Sci. 2013 Jul 1;24(7):1181-9. doi: 10.1177/0956797612469210. Epub 2013 May 14.


Despite common findings suggesting that lack of negative life events should be optimal, recent work has revealed a curvilinear pattern, such that some cumulative lifetime adversity is instead associated with optimal well-being. This work, however, is limited in that responses to specific stressors as they occurred were not assessed, thereby precluding investigation of resilience. The current research addressed this critical gap by directly testing the relationship between adversity history and resilience to stressors. Specifically, we used a multimethod approach across two studies to assess responses to controlled laboratory stressors (respectively requiring passive endurance and active instrumental performance). Results revealed hypothesized U-shaped relationships: Relative to a history of either no adversity or nonextreme high adversity, a moderate number of adverse life events was associated with less negative responses to pain and more positive psychophysiological responses while taking a test. These results provide novel evidence in support of adversity-derived propensity for resilience that generalizes across stressors.

Keywords: challenge and threat; cold pressor task; cumulative lifetime adversity; life experiences; mastery and control; pain; resilience; stress inoculation; stress reactions; toughening.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological / physiology
  • Catastrophization / psychology*
  • Cold-Shock Response
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Resilience, Psychological*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires