I’ve had a lot to worry about lately. On my personal list: Watching my mutual funds melt down, the increasing hassle (not to mention price) of my commute, my child’s weep downs, how to super-rush a visa to Brazil amid interestingly-timed “technical difficulties” at the Consulate, and (don’t even let me go there) Sarah Palin.
Sometimes I think our country has gone nuts. We have collapsing financial markets, unprecedented housing foreclosures, $4 gas, and an emperor without any clothes on perambulating in the of an incredibly critical presidential election. But despite everything, many people (myself included) have a remarkable capacity to maintain optimism and confidence and even some cheer – about ourselves and the world around us.
The label for the process by which we manage to survive – and even thrive – in the face of stress, trauma, and adversity is coping. It’s how we assuage the hurt, anxiety, or suffering caused by a negative event. There’s a massive – and I mean massive – literature in psychology on coping, but I will tell you about my two favorite findings regarding successful coping.
First, successful coping involves construing some kind of benefit in the ordeal or trauma.
I know that might sound trivializing, but researchers have found that the most well-adjusted people are able to perceive some value or gain (a silver lining, if you will) in the loss or negative life event – for example, a change in life perspective, a feeling that their life has greater worth, or a sense of personal growth.
For example, a professor I know lost his dearest friend and closest collaborator, a brilliant scientist, abruptly and cruelly, to cancer, cutting short a 27-year-long magical partnership. “I am the luckiest man I know, “ he said at a dinner honoring his friend, “I wish on each of you the marvelous collaboration that I had.”
A classic study by UCLA Professor Shelley Taylor found that women coping with breast cancer have amazing strength. When interviewed, many of these women spoke of their illness as a wake-up call – something that galvanized them to reorder their priorities and to recognize what was truly important in life (a common insight was family over work), of deciding to devote more time to their closest relationships and to spend less time on things like housework.
Some people who have experienced hardships and losses claim that their relationships have benefited – that their friendships and intimate partnerships are more profound, significant, and meaningful after the trauma than before. Still others, researchers find, assert that they have grown enormously in the wake of their traumatic experience, discovering a maturity and strength of character that they didn’t know they possessed. And many experience a newfound appreciation of the preciousness and goodness of life. For example, a survivor of a harrowing plane crash described her experience afterward: “When I got home, the sky was brighter. I paid attention to the texture of sidewalks. It was like being in a movie.”
Second, successful coping fosters personal growth and even transformation.
Researchers have also accumulated evidence supporting Friedrich Nietzsche’s familiar exhortation, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” It turns out that the experience of pain, loss, and trauma can make us stronger or, at least, lead us to believe that we are stronger and more resourceful than we had thought.
Some psychologists argue that finding benefit in a trauma represents a true personal transformation. When you consider it, a major loss can launch a person into new roles and novel situations. A new widow, who has always conceived of herself as a “wife” and has been greatly dependent on her husband – financially, emotionally, and socially – may be abruptly catapulted to learn numerous assorted skills. She may be startled to find herself rising to the occasion and accomplishing things that she never judged herself capable of doing: selling her house, playing ball with her son, calculating her taxes, or attending a party all by herself, This can certainly lead to new self-views, enhanced self-esteem, and possibly even growth.
Indeed, trauma survivors often report transformative experiences. Some gain renewed confidence in their ability to endure and prevail. Others experience improved relationships – for example, discovering who their true friends are and whom they can really count on. Others still begin to feel more comfortable with intimacy and acquire a heightened sense of compassion for others who suffer. Finally, others seem to develop a deeper, more sophisticated, and more satisfying philosophy of life.
And here is where I get to bring up my favorite figure of all time. As you will see, it illustrates three potential paths that we can take in the face of a major challenge: A) survival, B) recovery, or C) thriving. Survival essentially translates to a permanent impairment of functioning. This path (see Path A line below) shows a person who is merely surviving following a trauma, someone who may have lost much happiness and desire to enjoy love, work, or play. Recovery (Path B) describes a person who suffers in the aftermath of a trauma, perhaps losing the capacity to work productively or have satisfying relationships for a period of time, but who eventually returns to his original state. Finally, thriving (Path C) involves someone who also suffers in the immediate aftermath but who ultimately not only returns to her original state but rises above it! This person has experienced a transformation.
How can we thrive – let alone recover or survive – in the face of the severe hardships and stresses that life not infrequently throws us? How do we remain upbeat in the face of gloomy television news night after night? It is not easy. For some people and in some situations, it may not even be possible. But for most of us, it’s within reach.