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How Do You Build Psychological Strength? Start With Stress

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According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress is a top health concern, and many psychologists say that if we don’t learn healthy ways to manage that stress now, it could have serious long-term health implications. The United Nations International Labor Organization seconds the APA, now defining stress as a “global epidemic”. Indeed, we now spend more time than ever before trying to manage what for many appears unmanageable.


The problem is that stress, like risk, does not follow any predictable pattern. Just as we cannot pinpoint exactly which factors will devalue a stock, we can’t know when we will lose our jobs, our spouses, or our health – all sizeable stresses. And while we may think that preparing for stress, or attempting to find ways to better manage it, will lower our stress, our efforts themselves may be part of the problem.


A recent study asked participants to list tasks that took a certain amount of time, and then envision themselves completing those tasks. Participants were then asked to imagine tasks that were in conflict with one another. Some of the tasks actually competed for time, such as scheduling two things in the same time slot, while others were in competition for emotional or financial reasons, such as saving for retirement or buying a nicer house now. When the participants perceived activities as being in conflict with achieving competitive goals, they experienced an increase in anxiety and felt even more stressed (Etkin,, 2015).


These findings are supported by a survey completed for the U.S. Department of Labor, which found that conflicts between the demands of the workplace and of home life are an increasingly common source of stress – 10 percent of people who are married or living with children under 18 experience severe work-family conflict, and an additional 25 percent report moderate levels of conflict. And these competing demands are not exclusive to the work-life balance. As Robert Ostermann, professor of psychology at FDU’s Teaneck-Hackensack Campus, observes, “There is less stress in developing countries than in developed countries.” In developing countries, Ostermann explains, “the value of family and nation is much stronger than it is here in the U.S.” Developed nations, on the other hand, place greater emphasis on what is earned or how much money is possessed – which is often fueled by increased consumerism and the growing influence of advertisers who “try to convince the consuming public that a want is a need.”


And that is the problem that stress management presents: we are trying to anticipate things that cannot be anticipated, and in doing so, we are wrestling with competing demands. Consider the following: John is worried about losing his job, and imagines trying to find another, but because John has not yet been laid off, he must still focus on the daily demands on his position. While wondering how long his savings will last, whether or not he will be able to file for unemployment, and if he could possibly ask his brother for a loan, he is trying to finish his report, plan for tomorrow’s meeting, and schedule incoming clients. Shifting our focus from one task to another comes with a cost, and one that often drains our energy.


But let’s consider the problem another way. What if we shifted our focus from stress management to stress “utilization”?


In one recent study, researchers interviewed 2,000 adults about their lifetime experiences with 37 different negative events. Everything from natural disasters, serious illness, divorce, death of a family member, and physical and sexual abuse was explored. Participants were then asked about their current level of stress, functioning at work and in relationships, any negative symptoms related to stress, and overall life satisfaction. Participants were then followed for two years. What the researchers uncovered was something unexpected: patterns of stress are not linear. In other words, the amount of stress a person experienced in early life did not produce an equitable amount of negative symptoms – such as troubled relationships, work distress, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress – in later years. Even more interesting was that lower levels of stress in early life – such as fewer deaths, divorces, and losses – produced worse outcomes than those who had reported some prior adversity. While those with too much stress and not enough recovery also had more trouble in later years, what research like this evidences is that in many ways, too little stress is just as bad as too much.


The results of this study were later replicated when researchers examined people with chronic back pain. Here again, those who had no previous adversity faired just as poorly as those who reported very high levels – and both groups did worse than those who had experienced some life stress. Having dealt with some previous adversity or trauma appears to be a form of psychological strength building, and when adversity is absent, so is psychological strength.


But it might also be that not facing adversity causes us to make it worse when it does happen. In one study, researchers asked participants to submerge one hand in a bucket of ice water, and then asked them to report how much pain they felt. Those who had previous exposure to moderate levels of adverse experiences reported more accurate levels of pain, while those with either no history of adversity or very high levels of it tended to “catastrophize” the pain, reporting is unbearable and overwhelming – and associated it with more negative emotion. Thinking that pain would be worse than it actually was – in other words, catastrophizing – made it feel more unbearable.


What studies like this should tell us is that stress is an asset, and too little of it is a problem. Without experiencing some stress – in the form of prior adversity – we seem wholly unprepared to handle it in the present. And if the conclusion that there is a sweet spot to the amount of stress a person experiences sounds familiar, it should. Just as achieving optimal performance depends on finding just the right amount of arousal — too amped and you’ll make a mistake; not amped enough and you’ll be bored — using stress to build psychological strength depends on having the right amount of it — not avoiding totally.

How Do You Build Psychological Strength? Start With Stress

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2016). How Do You Build Psychological Strength? Start With Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Oct 2016
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