Maria Shriver recently posted a YouTube link asking how people handle life's transitions (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sux6hjX_7iQ). Here's how I would answer.
They say that the only things you can count on in life are death and taxes; well, I'd like to add one more thing to that list - adversity. I guarantee you will experience a few down's with your up's as you go through life, some worse than others. One of my biggest down's happened twelve years ago. I was happily engaged and planning my wedding. I was also nearing the completion of my first year in law school, which had been an especially trying experience. My fiancé and I had planned to meet for a few days prior to the start of my finals, and I was eagerly awaiting his arrival. When I opened the door to my apartment, there he stood, and I knew immediately that something was wrong. It only took a few minutes for him to tell me that he was not ready to get married and wanted to end our relationship. This happened three months before we were to get married. Talk about a kick in the gut. I was angry, in shock, embarrassed, sad, confused, and lost all at the same time. I stopped eating, left school for a week, not knowing if I would go back, and pretty much fell apart. I eventually bounced back and learned some pretty powerful lessons in the process.
My failed engagement and other trying times have had taught me a few things. When life hands you a bunch of lemons, keep these points in mind:
1. Embrace the suck but don't forget the positive. There's really no way around it. A negative life challenge is probably not going to feel good, but positive events still happen. Keeping track of and reflecting on positive events and continuing to express gratitude and optimism help reduce symptoms of depression. (1)
2. Lean on friends and family. Noted psychologist Chris Peterson sums up the field of positive psychology with three words: "other people matter." It's because the research is so strong in showing that whether you're trying to become more resilient or just trying to lead a happier life, good relationships are a must. A good relationship can be anything from one reliable friend to parents, siblings, cousins, or a teacher. Humans are not meant to be solitary creatures, so when life knocks you down, lean on others for support.
3. Take care of yourself. It's critical to continue exercising, sleeping as best you can, and eating healthy to keep up your energy. Yes, there will be days when you down a gallon of ice cream and spend the day in your PJ's, but you're in fighting mode. You're fighting to heal and develop a new normal, and that takes time and energy.
4. Put one foot in front of the other. There's a country song by Rodney Atkins that goes, "If you're going through hell, keep on going..." The trick is to stay in the hurt long enough to learn the lessons you're supposed to learn, but not to get stuck in the hurt. Believing that the problems you are experiencing can be solved through your own efforts will help you develop more effective coping strategies. (2)
5. Ask, "What are the lessons I'm supposed to learn?" When adversity strikes, many people grow from the experience. Unfortunately, you cannot connect the dots going forward, so it's hard, if not impossible, to see the lesson clearly at first. As you heal, you can connect the dots by reflecting back on the experience and how you've changed for the better in the process.
6. Don't be so hard on yourself. Society paints a seductive picture telling you that you should be strong, bounce back immediately, and soldier on. While that's important at times, if you're going through a big life challenge your emotions will take you on a rollercoaster ride. Being resilient means recognizing when you have to tough it out and when you need to pull back and just rest.
7. Don't make any quick decisions. When my fiancé was plotting his new course after our break up, he thought he might want to spend some time teaching in rural northern Alaska. In a desperate attempt to try and rekindle our relationship, I immediately told him that I would go with him. I almost convinced myself that I could be happy being isolated in a rural frozen tundra, failing to remember that I'm not even keen on the Wisconsin winters I have to live through each year. He ended up not being picked for the program, but I would have compounded my problems tremendously had I attempted something that I was not even remotely passionate about just to try and save a failed relationship. When you're hurt, angry, or sad, it's not the time to make quick decisions.
While nobody wants to experience difficult times, they're an inevitable part of life. I'd love to hear about other ways you've coped with adversity.
1. Lyubomirsky, S., & Della Porta M.D. (2010). Boosting happiness, buttressing resilience. In J.W. Reich, A.J. Zautra, & J.S. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of Adult Resilience (pp. 450-464).
2. Skodol, A.E. (2010). The resilient personality. In J.W. Reich, A.J. Zautra, & J.S. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of Adult Resilience (pp. 112-125).