This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians.
While we can’t always control what happens to us, we can better learn how to handle the inevitable setbacks and crises so that they don’t define us.
Many patients come to therapy convinced that early tragedies have marked them as “career victims.” Each new upset is more “proof” that the world hates them.
While it’s true that some people are genetically better wired to bounce back after adversity, researchers have deduced many of the qualities that define a resilient personality, luckily there are techniques for the less naturally adaptable among us to learn to better deal with those slings and arrows.
The Pollyanna Principle
Seeing the bright side of dark circumstances, no matter how bleak, is key to developing mental resilience in the face of trauma. Even if we just smile or laugh while gazing at ourselves in the mirror, the brain responds by generating dopamine, the neurotransmitter that produces feelings of happiness.
Indeed, a positive attitude was the top quality identified by Dennis Charney, M.D., dean of Mount Sinai’s school of medicine, when he conducted a study including Vietnam war veterans who’d been held prisoners of war for six to eight years and suffered torture and solitary confinement, yet did not develop depression. Despite their hellish circumstances, time after time these men opted for optimism and hope versus ruminating on their misfortune.
My patient Sheila* can attest to the power of a positive spin on a devastating circumstance. After her childhood friend Beth* died of cancer at 33, Sheila wisely allowed herself time to mourn. But a month after her friend’s passing she threw a “Celebrate Beth” party, inviting guests to come up to the podium and share joyful memories of their loved one. “We also raised thousands of dollars for breast cancer, which was a wonderful tribute to Beth,” Sheila said. “Nearly every day, I set aside a few minutes to sit and be thankful for the good times the two of us shared. How lucky I was to have this wonderful presence in my life for three decades.”
Perception is everything: think yourself miserable and unlucky and that is how you will feel. Consider the blessings you are accruing—even the finite ones—and gratitude will be the beacon that guides your life.
Belief You Chart Your Own Destiny
In 1955 researcher Emmy Werner initiated a landmark longitudinal study of 698 infants on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The study, which lasted 40 years, discovered that a major reason why some children exposed to severe instability and other risk factors (i.e., premature birth) emerge relatively unscathed is their “internal locus of control.” That is, rather than feeling unfairly buffeted by life, these individuals believe what happens to them in life is primarily the result of their own actions and beliefs.
My patient Jim’s* left leg was amputated at the knee as a result of ramming his car into a tree. He admitted during a therapy session, “I was listening to music and planning what I’d make for dinner—my focus was not on my driving.”
Jim’s ability to accept responsibility for his actions rather than blame fate, the tree, his car and/or horoscope chart was instrumental in healing. True, the lesson he learned—the importance of mindfulness—came at a high cost, but Jim’s self-direction led to him working hard toward recovery so that he could resume what he calls “a full, happy life that now includes a prosthetic.”
When you feel close to despair over circumstances in your life, remember that while you can’t always control stressors, you can ultimately control how you react to them.
Turn Pain into a Sense of Purpose
As a child of holocaust survivors, there was no need to search high and low to uncover research that living a life that matters has much to do with how one ultimately handles inexplicable horror. My parents and all my relatives found joy in building families—not to replace the ones they lost, but to create a legacy.
The path to resilience building for those who survive tragedy is in transcending the feeling of victimhood and finding a way to forge meaning in the experience.
Wendy* was brutally raped and choked by four men, who left her unconscious in a field. Her body healed faster than her mind. “I spent months emotionally comatose,” she said. “Why had this happened to me? How could I possibly have a moment of enjoying my life after such a hideous attack? I didn’t want to be around people. I was so ashamed of what had happened to me. Didn’t I have it coming since I’d been out alone walking at 11 p.m.?”
Joining a rape support group helped her see that she was not alone … and that she was not to blame for what had been done to her. “Gradually my perspective changed and I started asking myself how I could empower other rape victims to take back their lives.”
Her answer was becoming a volunteer at a rape crisis hotline. “The women who call in really appreciate talking to someone who knows what they are going through.”
By helping others, she is helping herself.
*Names have been changed to protect patient privacy.
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a NYC-based therapist and editor of the anthology How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions From Both Sides of the Therapy Couch.