Fragility: That which does not Kill me Makes me Weaker

Researchers from Texas A&M University School of Public Health surveyed over 1,000 Texans about their recent exposure to disasters (natural and man-made) and their overall mental health (as assessed by a 12-question survey). They discovered that people who experienced two or more disasters within the last five years of the survey had poorer mental health than the national average. The study’s lead author, Garett Sansom, noted “We discovered the reverse of the adage ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger,’”.

Difficulties can lead to poor mental health. This statement is just common sense.

We expect that the kid with the broken arm, who spends summer in a cast, will be gloomier due to his injury. We expect that the victim of home invasion will feel less secure in their (former) comfort zone.

I have written previously on the emotional impacts of stressful events. Childhood sexual abuse and other hazardous or unpredictable events can leave lasting impacts to our psyche. It doesn’t end in adulthood, even your political “team” losing an election can be cause for distress.

Truly, the world is painful and can damage us.

The Poison of Protection: Toxic Security

Considering the wide range of potential harms out in the world, shouldn’t more be done to protect us?

Research, like the one cited above from Texas A&M, demonstrates the obvious impacts to mental health of disasters. When faced with such research, we may assume that human beings are fragile. And when we assume human fragility, we assume that our problems can be solved by more protection.

The impulse to protect the vulnerable is a human trait which goes very deep. An archetype exists of the strong, harsh father who protects his family from all sorts of danger. Cultural or political systems that match this authoritarian style are said to be paternalistic. Shouldn’t we all demand a little more paternalism in our lives in order to stay safe?

There is a cost of paternalism, however. Lack of exposure to difficulties, far from protecting us can make us weaker. Conversely, exposure to difficulties often make us stronger.

An apt metaphor for this process is weights training. Each time the muscle in your body are exposed to additional weight, the old musculature breaks down, and then subsequently repairs stronger. The breaking and repairing of muscle fibres is ultimately what leads to growth. People who don’t push their comfort zone with weights, do not growth muscle mass. People who hardly not use their muscles (such as astronauts) experience muscle atrophy and they become much weaker.

Avoiding all difficulties and remaining protected from stressors has a similar weakening effect. Every time a difficulty is avoided, or we are protected from a minor hardship, we increase fragility. Short-term gain for long-term pain. Remaining free of life difficulties is a fragility-inducing life strategy which I call “Toxic Security”.


So, what should we do with this information?

Go out and seek natural disasters?

Set up traumatic events for ourselves?

Deliberately suffer?

The best way to guard against fragility is by aiming to be antifragile. I’ve written extensively on anti-fragility (see here, here and here). Becoming antifragile means setting ourselves up to benefit from the bad and unexpected. When it comes to mental health, one of the best ways to achieve this is through exposure to small doses of difficulties.

A recent Australian study demonstrated the benefit of exposure to difficulties. Professor Mimi Tang and colleagues took 200 kids with peanut allergies and gradually exposed them to ever larger amounts of peanuts. Three quarters of the children either were in remission or showed desensitisation to peanut allegories by the end of the study.

Small amounts of peanuts, and small amounts of stress, work like a vaccine, which can make you a bit sick when jabbed, but a lot less sick when infected. They work like the breaking and repairing of muscle mass, amongst weight-trainers.

Sure, this means discomfort in the short-term. It might even mean short-term poorer mental health (perhaps as rated by a 12-point short form mental health survey that Texas A&M used). However, in the long-term, these exposures fortify, not fragilise.

One step you can do today to ensure your antifragility is to step outside of your comfort zone. In some small way, make an agreement with yourself to embrace risk and shun paternalism. Because the riskiest strategy is taking no risks at all!

Speak Your Mind


Suite C5
102-106 Boyce Rd
Maroubra Junction, NSW 2035
(02) 8958 2585

Have Questions?
Send a Message!

By submitting this form via this web portal, you acknowledge and accept the risks of communicating your health information via this unencrypted email and electronic messaging and wish to continue despite those risks. By clicking "Yes, I want to submit this form" you agree to hold Brighter Vision harmless for unauthorized use, disclosure, or access of your protected health information sent via this electronic means.