Bouncing Back from Adversity
Studies have shown that adverse situations can be learning opportunities.
Posted August 17, 2019
We’ve all had bad days and good days. Because of our states of mind, some days may feel worse than they actually are. Sometimes we might feel like victims, even though, in truth, we may not be. It’s important to remember that by keeping a balanced state of mind, we have a greater chance of conquering most types of adversity.
Adversity may be defined as unfortunate, difficult, or challenging events that occur in our lives. It’s been said that adverse situations can be great opportunities for learning. For example, the Buddhists say that without mud there is no lotus. That is, without experiencing misfortune, we cannot recognize fortunate times and situations. Another way of looking at this is that if we lower our expectations and accept whatever comes our way, we will feel a sense of overall acceptance; thus, adversity will be less of an issue.
The Buddhists also speak about having a big mind, meaning that sharing adverse experiences by either talking or writing about them is one way to cope. The idea is that when we acknowledge our problems, then we can express them in a big-mind way. Unfortunate events become a problem when we try too hard to figure them out. Ultimately, according to Shunryu Suzuki (2010), in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, “whether you have a problem in your life or not depends upon your own attitude and your own understanding” (p. 92).
As an example, over the years many people have often referred to me as “resilient.” Whether that’s because I bounced back from the loss of a loved one or overcame a life obstacle such as cancer, my style is to just do the best I can do and then move on. In most cases, this is not a conscious decision, but rather it’s a way of living. In other words, it’s a choice and a lifestyle.
In his book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Richard Davidson (2002) says that resilience refers to any individual differences or life experiences that might help people cope with adverse situations in a positive way by helping them deal with stress in the future, which could preclude the development of mental disorders. Those who are resilient are able to believe in themselves and their ability to effectively manage life’s challenges. Also, those who are more resilient than others tend to be more proactive and are more inclined to work hard to prevent certain issues and illnesses from occurring. It might be their only key to survival. It’s unclear if this is a nature-or-nurture character trait, but it certainly comes in handy when one needs to deal with adversity and, in turn, find a way to move forward.
This leads to the idea of prevention, which is always a good policy, whether it pertains to health concerns or building codes. Often we tend to be reactive rather than preventive. We may only begin taking care of ourselves when we’re confronted with a particular diagnosis or health issue, or when a security breach of some sort affects us. Perhaps this is human nature, but do all these warnings suggest that we should change our way of thinking? Is there an overarching message? My sense is that when failures are properly understood, then there’s a context for learning and growth.
Paradoxically, some of the most resilient situations or places are those that are regularly exposed to some sort of disruption. The reason is that they carry the shared memory that, in fact, things can and do go wrong. Is that why New York City, since September 11, 2001, has had few major disruptions over the past decade or so? And is that why Harold Kushner’s book of a few decades ago, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, holds so much truth?
We all have different ways of managing stress, so different strategies can lead to a sense of resilience. Our spiritual beliefs and cultural backgrounds may also come into play when developing this sense.
If you find yourself in an adverse or difficult situation, here are some ways to navigate it:
- Be flexible, and realize that change is a part of life.
- Maintain a positive attitude.
- Keep channels of communication open with yourself and others.
- Remind yourself of strategies that have helped you cope in the past.
- Be mindful of methods of self-discovery.
- Engage in a journaling practice to record your feelings.
- Find a way to manage stress and rash impulses.
- Make strong connections with others.
- Be decisive and proactive.
- Use creative-visualization techniques.
Kushner, H. (1981). When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Anchor Books.
Richardson, G. E. (2002). “The metatheory of resilience and resiliency.” Journal of Clinical Psychology. 58, 307–21.
Suzuki, S. (2010). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Boston, MA: Weatherhill.