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Clouds and Silver Linings

The unexpected benefits of life's difficulties, setbacks, and imperfections.

As a therapist, I am always thinking about adversity. After all, why would clients come to me (or any other therapist, for that matter) were they not in some type of trouble? But recently I have had occasion to turn that lens inward and consider the adversities that have occurred in my own life and the lives of people I have encountered along the way.

As I reviewed the important lessons learned in my own life, it occurred to me that I learned most when things have gone wrong – and that this is probably a general rule. We have evolved so as to learn best from misfortune, to prevent it from happening again, thereby improving our chances for survival. Nietzsche probably put it best when he said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Seeing these lessons through the prism of what went wrong resulted in my new book The Gift of Adversity. The book is divided into 52 short chapters, each of which begins with wise words by some great figure, tells a short story and ends with a take home line or two, distilled from my own life and my four decades as a physician. Here are some ideas taken from the book, that I illustrate with stories and buttress with research.

Adversity comes in three forms: First, there is plain bad luck – such as an inherited illness, an unavoidable loss or a bolt out of the blue. Second, come the results of poor decisions or errors in judgment – especially hard to take since the pain is usually compounded by guilt and shame. Finally, there is the self-imposed adversity that we see in people who strive for the highest levels of excellence or embark on The Hero’s Journey.

Severe adversity is accompanied by predictable psychological changes. There is a sense of disorientation because the world has changed. Emotional upheaval is common – sadness, anxiety, and despair may tangle together leading to a state of confusion. Your physiology is disrupted – sleeping, eating, and circadian rhythms may go haywire. How can you best deal with it? Here are some general principles I have found helpful in my work and my own life.

1. Accept that the adversity has occurred. It is natural to want to deny the breakup of a romance or the death of a loved one. As Joan Didion pointedly observed in The Year of Magical Thinking, she did not want to throw away her dead husband’s shoes in case he might come back and need them. Such denial slows down the process of coming to terms with new realities.

2. Proportion your response according to the adversity. This requires analyzing the situation and being measured in dealing with it.

3. Regulate your physical and emotional state by cultivating healthy habits – regular hours of sleeping and waking, eating proper meals, exercising, and meditating.

4. Reach out to others. Friends, family, community, and religious organizations can make a crucial difference at these times.

5. Turn the trauma into a story. The work of James Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin indicates that writing about your thoughts and feelings for as little as twenty minutes, four times over a week can influence the outcome.

6. Reframe the problem. This is where you may start to see the phoenix beginning to rise from the ashes. It may take a while – days, months or even years – depending on the adversity – but as you recover from the blow, gifts can be found in the rubble. Maybe the relationship was bad for you, and you will make a wiser choice the next time round. Or perhaps you are better off without the job you worked so hard to retain. There are many examples. Research shows that people who have had some adversity are more resilient than those that have been untroubled, lending credence to the expression that one cannot learn to become a master sailor on calm seas.

Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D. is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. He is the author of Winter Blues and the New York Times - bestselling book Transcendence. His forthcoming book is The Gift of Adversity. More information about Dr. Rosenthal and his books can be found on his website at

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