We’ve all heard the saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but there is little to no scientific basis behind it. A group of researchers at Tel Aviv University, however, are taking a more philosophical stance on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), claiming that there is a silver lining in traumatic experiences.

Last year, researchers Dr. Sharon Dekel and Zahava Solomon of Tel Aviv University’s School of Social Work released a study that found people whose parents are Holocaust survivors may have less of a likelihood to develop PTSD after experiencing their own traumas. Building from this study, the researchers hoped to find out whether the second generation of Holocaust survivors had a tendency to experience “post-traumatic growth.”

“Post-traumatic growth can be defined as a workable coping mechanism, a way of making and finding meaning involved in the building of a more positive self-image and the perception of personal strength,” Dr. Sharon Dekel said in a press release. “We were interested in studying the effect of the Holocaust on the second generation’s propensity for this kind of growth.” People who experience posttraumatic growth reap positive benefits in their lives, often developing an improved outlook on life, more intimate relationships, and a revived, larger sense of personal strength.

The researchers studied veterans of the Yom Kippur War, also known as the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, in particular. They wanted to measure and compare the posttraumatic growth in veterans who were children of Holocaust survivors to those who were not. The study found that second-generation Holocaust survivors had lower posttraumatic growth (PTG) levels, meaning they had less of a likelihood to be affected overall and to grow from such trauma experiences, contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis that they would have higher levels of PTG. The authors found a possible explanation — that the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next might make war less traumatic and stressful for their children, lessening their posttraumatic growth.

The idea that suffering yields positive results in the long run is an idea thousands of years old — it’s been written about by ancient Greeks, Christians, Hebrews, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. Yet, this notion hasn’t been deeply studied by researchers, as Jim Rendon writes on the New York Times: “[T]he idea that people grow in positive ways from hardship is so embedded in our culture that few researchers even noticed that it was there to be studied.” The foundation for research in this area was laid by two psychologists at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who studied survivors of severe injuries as well as older people who had lost spouses. They found that no matter what sort of trauma these people had experienced, they all went through the same thing: their suffering somehow changed them for the better. In 1995, Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi coined the term “posttraumatic growth.”

Further studies linked optimism to resilience, and vice versa, and soon the term posttraumatic growth was being linked to the victims of war crimes, captivity, and cancer. “It’s pretty clear that post-traumatic growth is a universal phenomenon,” Tzipi Weiss, an associate professor of social work at Long Island University who has studied the topic, told the New York Times. The problem is whether it’s something that can truly be objectively defined and measured. “I have no doubt that there are people, perhaps many people, who do change in positive ways, but we are not able to measure it,” Howard Tennan, professor of community medicine and health at the University of Connecticut, told the New York Times.

The studies coming from the Tel Aviv University researchers perhaps provide results with unclear implications, but one thing they can say with some certainty is that, somehow, second-generation Holocaust survivors respond differently to trauma than others. And the researchers hope that by continuing to study why there’s a difference in responses, they will be able to put their results to use in treating posttraumatic stress disorder. “If we can identify verifiably positive implications of trauma, we will be able to incorporate them into treatment and teach people how to grow after terrible experiences,” Dekel said in the press release.

Source: Dekel S, Mandl C, Solomon Z. Is the Holocaust Implicated in Posttraumatic Growth in Second-Generation Holocaust Survivors? A Prospective Study. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2013