Better on the other side
Updated: May 4
How adversity can make us stronger
These are uncertain times. We are confined to our homes, isolated from family and friends and huge numbers of the population are out of work. Restrictions on our lives and our freedom can change daily. We no longer feel in control. It is frightening and distressing, especially since we don’t know when this pandemic is going to end. And when it does end, what will our lives look like? At times, the feelings of fear and anxiety can be overwhelming.
What if, instead, we focus on what this experience can teach us. What if we come out of this crisis with a greater appreciation for things, we previously took for granted? We learn to build resilience and cultivate compassion for others and experience first-hand that we can emerge from an immensely challenging period stronger, wiser and better able to cope with whatever life throws at us next.
Research shows that adversity can be a time of personal development and growth. Psychology professors, Alex Linley and Stephen Joseph, propose that adversity can enable improvement in three main areas of our lives: enhanced relationships, changes in views about oneself and changes in life philosophy. People who achieve personal growth during hardship often value their friends and family more, feel increased compassion towards others and cultivate greater self-acceptance. They may also foster a greater appreciation for what truly matters in life and find meaning and joy in what were previously insignificant moments.
So, what enables us to grow during times of adversity? Why do some people evolve, and others decline? What do we need to do in order to come out of this stronger, more resilient and ready to resume our pre-pandemic lives?
Human beings avoid discomfort. It is how we are wired. Fleeing from uncomfortable feelings or numbing the pain with alcohol, food and other stimulants are well known avoidance strategies. However, escaping from reality only provides momentary relief and increases emotional distress in the long term.
Taking an overly optimist approach to an extremely difficult situation can also be detrimental. Optimism is an admirable trait that can carry a person far in many situations however resilience does not necessarily stem from the rose-coloured viewpoint of optimism, but rather from the ability to accept harsh realities. According to Diane Coutu, former editor at Harvard Business Review, “When we truly stare down reality, we prepare ourselves to act in ways that allow us to endure and survive extraordinary hardship”.
Instead of avoiding or numbing difficult emotions, we need to face them in a way that feels non-threatening. Cultivating awareness of the present moment and relating to one's experiences in a nonjudgmental and accepting manner is the cornerstone of mindfulness-based therapy. Mindfulness gives us greater insight into our thoughts and emotions so we can approach them more objectively.
Acknowledging that many people are experiencing the same emotions and struggling with the same restrictions can also be helpful. The understanding that suffering is part of the shared human experience is a pillar of self-compassion; the practice of empathy towards oneself. Self-compassion refers to how one relates to oneself during challenging experiences. It involves acknowledging the difficulty of the experience and teaches us to be kind towards ourselves when we are struggling.
In a study on post 9/11 veterans returning from conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was demonstrated that mindful awareness of emotional distress assists recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder. Self-compassion’s elements of self-kindness and a sense of common humanity, reduced social isolation and negative emotions such as guilt and shame that can be a barrier to the PTSD recovery process.
Mindfulness cultivates awareness of the present moment whereas self-compassion emphasises awareness of our own emotional distress. Combining the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion provides a powerful tool for emotional resilience. Acknowledging the reality of the situation and being prepared to sit with the discomfort while showing ourselves the same kindness we would show a friend, is an important first step in moving forward after this crisis is over.
Purpose and meaning are well known pillars in the pursuit of happiness. Happiness can be fleeting and elusive at times however a sense of purpose gives us something to hold on to as we navigate the ups and downs of everyday life. Finding meaning during times of hardship is undoubtedly more challenging but can be extremely helpful in reducing feelings of overwhelm.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, taught about the importance of finding meaning after his imprisonment in Auschwitz concentration camp. Through his personal experience and by witnessing other prisoners endure the greatest suffering imaginable, Frankl discovered that finding meaning, even in the most insignificant moments, promised the greatest chance of survival. “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose. In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning”.
Slowing down and learning to be more present in our lives can provide us with unexpected moments of pleasure and meaning. We can find meaning in simple everyday activities such as listening more intently to our loved ones so we can connect more deeply. Being around to help our children with their homework or play with our pets, can fill our days with meaning, strengthen our bonds and create lifelong memories.
Choose your response
The other powerful concept taught by Frankl following his imprisonment in concentration camps was the concept of free will, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.
We don’t have control over the situation we are currently in, but we do have control over how we choose to respond. When we are engulfed by loneliness, we can choose to reach out to family and friends. When we are overwhelmed by uncertainty, we can focus on simple everyday activities that give our lives routine. If our mental health challenges become too great, we can respond by engaging medical professionals or making use of online support services.
We often wait until we no longer have something before we truly appreciate it. When we are confined to our homes, we value freedom. When we can no longer spend time in the physical presence of family and friends, we crave affection.
People who focus on the areas of their life that maximise their positive emotions, tend to feel happier. Even a person who is realistic and accepting of their situation can still cultivate positive emotions during a challenging experience.
Research abounds regarding the benefits of gratitude. You’d be hard pressed to have not heard about the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal. In 21 days, you can rewire your brain to scan your environment for the positive. When a person is faced with a negative situation, the experience can narrow their range of potential actions and thoughts. Gratitude can help them cope with the negative emotions by restoring cognitive flexibility. Gratitude builds social bonds and skills such as showing appreciation for others. It has positive impacts on stress levels, mental health and quality of sleep.
A gratitude intervention for women with breast cancer found that a daily gratitude practice led to higher levels of daily psychological functioning, greater perceived support, and a greater ability to cope. Daily functioning was defined in terms of self-esteem, optimism and acceptance of the illness. By listing things in their lives, they were grateful for, the women were better able to move the focus away from the trauma of their disease to more positive emotions.
Social isolation and a lack of social resources can result in poor coping strategies. Research consistently shows that positive social support can reduce the risk of mental illness and provide a protective effect against stress. Technology allows us to maintain a strong connection to our friends and family when we can’t physically be in their presence. It is important to consistently reach out and make contact with our loved ones.
It is important to acknowledge that adversity won’t lead to positive change for everyone. For some people, the suffering and hardships are insurmountable. A lack of support networks or severe medical or mental health challenges can reduce the capacity to build resilience. If any of your loved ones are struggling to cope, the best thing you can provide them with is acceptance and empathy. Then encourage them to get the support they need from a trained professional.
By experiencing adversity, we may discover strengths and untapped resources within ourselves. We may strengthen existing relationships and develop new ones. We may find greater purpose and meaning in everyday life and appreciate people and experiences that we used to take for granted. If we are prepared to show ourselves some kindness whilst facing the harsh reality of our situation, focus on the little things that bring us joy, and find meaning in previously insignificant moments, then maybe, just maybe, we will emerge stronger, wiser and happier.