A study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that ‘what doesn’t kill you is indeed good for you’ (Hulbert & Anderson, 2018). It seems that when we face adverse situations, the brain learns to suppress unwanted memories in future events. Specific control processes appear to develop in the brains of people who have experienced previous and repeated trauma that prevent automatic retrieval of bad events when they occur later in life. In other words, early trauma helps us deal with future trauma. The research is based on two experiments that found college students with a greater history of trauma exhibited more suppression-induced forgetting of negative memories than did those who experienced little or no trauma. It is important to note that the levels of trauma reported in this study were moderate and not extreme (e.g., no combat experiences, disabling accidents, criminal activities). Like other cognitive skills, the researchers believe that individuals with greater real-life experiences who practiced stopping adverse memory recall could exhibit better inhibitory control over unwanted memories in the future. Intentionally learning to forget the negative aspects of experiences and overcoming their debilitating outcomes becomes easier with practice and builds higher levels of mental toughness. While no one intentionally wishes difficult life experiences on anyone, for most people it is a reality. But science says we can learn from, and even benefit from those experiences by intentionally practicing forgetting and overcoming emotional and psychological scars. Moderate adversity can, therefore, foster resilience later in life. These studies appear to lend support to the old saying “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
Hulbert, J. C., & Anderson, M. C. (2018). What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: Psychological trauma and its relationship to enhanced memory control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(12), 1931–1949.