Bouncing back from adversity

  • Health
  • Sunday, 06 Jul 2003


WHY do some people bounce back from life’s setbacks stronger than before, while others never recover? Researchers who have studied resiliency now have some answers. “In life, we may not be able to control what happens, but we can control our response,” says Dr Andrew Shatte, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and co-author of The Resilience Factor (Random House/Broadway Division).  

He and other researchers have isolated the traits that many resilient people share. While you don’t need to have all of them to triumph over tragedy, having – or cultivating – a few could serve you well.  


Rein in emotions  

Most of us react emotionally to a major crisis, or even a minor setback. Feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety or fear are appropriate and normal. However, people who recover from misfortune best don’t wallow in the emotion.  

“In the face of conflict or crisis,” says Dr Shatte, “resilient people exercise self-control.” Putting emotions aside lets you think more clearly, so you get a more accurate understanding of the situation.  

“People who focus on their feelings too much do not cope well with life’s challenges,” says Dr Al Siebert, director of the Resiliency Centre, in Portland, Oregon and the author of The Survivor Personality (Penguin Putnam, 1996). “Give yourself a set amount of time to feel sorry for yourself or grieve a loss, then move on.”  

Non-resilient people also get caught in the rut of recycling old emotions, which turns into one long excuse for why they’re having problems years later. By contrast, those who look to learn something from their situation, cope better. “Resilient people go into a mode of rapid ‘reality read’ and quickly adapt,” says Dr Siebert.  


Make the best of the worst 

People who bounce back from setbacks and move forward seem to share a philosophy: “Whatever the problem,” they say, “I’ll make something good come of it.”  

“Resilient people believe they can take control of their world and be masters of their destiny,” says Dr Shatte. “While they may rely on faith, they don’t rely on fate, or wait for help to fall into their lap. They make something positive happen.”  


Try a new point of view 

Being able to recognise the opportunities within a setback takes a special kind of open-mindedness. All of us have a thinking style that we’ve developed over the years. Our unique way of processing information is what shapes our perceptions. The problem is, says Dr Shatte, our perceptions, especially in the midst of adversity, are often not accurate. Yet those perceptions, whether true or false, drive our feelings and actions.  

People who bounce back best, have a flexible thinking style, says Dr Shatte. “They are especially good at getting out of their habitual way of thinking and looking at problems in a new way. As a result they perceive the world more accurately.”  


Think positive 

“Somehow, some way we’re going to deal with this.” If resilient people had a chorus, that would be it, says Dr Siebert. “Survivor types just believe things will work out, and that optimistic self-confidence goes a long way toward making their belief come true.”  

Dr Dina Carbonell, a research associate at Simmons College in Boston, has been part of a long-term study funded by the US National Institute of Mental Health that has tracked 400 people for 25 years, from age five to 30, to study the factors that affect mental health.  

She and her colleagues have found that one of the over-riding characteristics among people who consistently make the best out of difficult circumstances is optimism. “No matter how bad things get, they inevitably say, ‘Bad things aren’t going to last forever.’” Less resilient people tend to believe that things will never change. Survivors can also imagine possibilities that aren’t there right now. For example, they can see their way out of an abusive relationship or a dead-end job.  


Reach out  

Though it seems contradictory, resilient people are often both strongly self-sufficient and don’t hesitate to reach out for help. In the Simmons study, Dr Carbonell found that “resilient people identify those who are available, trustworthy and helpful. Then they go to the light.”  

Sometimes the light, as in Karen Haag’s case, is a support group. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, Karen, 41, who is head women’s basketball coach for the College of Saint Rose, in Albany, New York, got involved with a cancer support group within a few weeks. They coached her through all her surgical, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. That was as important to her mental recovery as her treatments were to her physical recovery.  


Find the humour 

Nothing pulls you out of the depths of despair quite like a well-placed joke. Humour is a wonderful coping device, and a technique resilient people use often and with ease.  

“I’m always encouraged when I see someone in a crisis make a joke,” says Dr Siebert. “Seeing things from a different perspective, especially a funny one, shows you can take some emotional distance and see the situation from another point of view.” 

Karen admits the humour she shares with her cancer friends can be a little black. She remembers her friend went to see her oncologist for a check-up after a surgery to reconstruct her breast. When the doctor went to examine her, he found she’d painted her new breast like a jack-o’-lantern.  


Get a bonus  

Although the benefits of increasing your resiliency may seem obvious – you recover more quickly, become better for the setback and make the world around you better – there’s one more not so obvious payoff to beefing up your resiliency quotient: Life gets better with age.  

“Less resilient people become more irritable and negative over time, while resilient folks become more competent at life, spend less time surviving and simply enjoy life more,” says Dr Siebert. They realise, it’s not the crisis, but what you make of it that counts. – LAT-WP  

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