“Our research suggests that learning to find benefits in even the worst problems, to gain perspective and to avoid distress over minor problems – even chronic ones – can help protect health and promote optimal aging,” says OSU researcher Carolyn Aldwin.
Drawing on a lifetime of ups and downs and knowing that overreacting is not only futile but can be physically harmful, many elders make a reasoned appraisal of events that allows them to stay balanced, says Aldwin, a specialist in stress and aging who has done a number of longitudinal studies with elders, many of them combat veterans.
“Older people simply appraise situations differently,” she notes. “Wisdom tells them when to just let something go or laugh it off or say, ‘It’s in God’s hands’.”
Significantly, the toughening effects of trauma aren’t only psychosocial. Researchers have turned up clear health benefits to what Aldwin calls “stress-related growth” or “post-traumatic growth,” such as more robust immune systems and better heart-attack survival rates.
“To me, coping with stress is the crux of mental health,” Aldwin says. “Stress is ubiquitous. We’re all going to have bad stuff happen to us. What trauma does is show you what’s important – that is, if you can learn from it.”