Stay Mentally Strong When Dealing With Unexpected Adversity
Strategies to help remain mentally strong.
Posted Feb 09, 2021
Resilience is a topic that continues to be talked about at length during the pandemic, and building your mental strength is an important aspect of it. I work with organizations of all sizes, and many people have been pushed to their well-being limits by both chronic conditions and sudden stressors.
I have been thinking about mental strength lately because I was blindsided over the holiday when my own well-being took an unexpected hit. While my business has remained strong, my 4.5-year-old daughter, Lucy, is healthy, and no close friends or family members have been severely impacted by COVID-19, I experienced some significant challenges last year — the biggest one being that my husband and I separated. I’m lucky in that we continue to co-parent well and have a stable, open line of communication. Lucy feels loved by both of us, and I have adjusted well to life as a single mom.
I felt really good as the holidays approached. Lucy spent Christmas Eve with me, and I made dinner for my parents. We had a fun time eating and opening gifts, but it was much different from our typical large gathering with my extended, fun-loving Irish family. The next morning, Lucy’s dad came over and we opened presents and saw what Santa brought. I made pancakes and felt very thankful that we were able to spend such a wonderful morning together. Lucy was scheduled to spend the rest of Christmas day and the day after with her dad.
As they packed up to leave, I felt an odd feeling in the pit of my stomach. I helped her put on her coat and gave her hugs and kisses. Holding back tears, I watched as they backed down the driveway. This wasn’t the first time I had watched her leave, but it was the first time I had watched her leave on Christmas. She waved to me as the car rolled down the street. I waved back and then my heart shattered into a million pieces. I instantly felt lost, confused, lonely, sad, and a huge sense of dread. I had no one to take care of. No work to distract me. No parties to go to. Just me — sitting in the stillness of my living room, trying to process the sudden rush of anxiety that stayed with me for days. I had not seen this coming.
Try to Limit Overthinking
For me, anxiety and overthinking travel together. It also doesn’t help that as a lawyer, I am trained to issue spot and analyze everything. I’ll overthink what someone said, what they didn’t say, what I’ve read, and more. Two of my go-to strategies to help limit overthinking are writing and reaching out to friends.
Expressive writing has been shown to slow rumination and ease depressive symptoms, among other benefits. Writing about a challenging situation tends to diffuse the intensity of the loops because your brain gains some distance from its own stream of thoughts. And it doesn’t have to look pretty or take a long time — just 10-15 minutes of writing about a struggle can help.
What also helps is to talk it out with someone you trust. I have several friends (and a wonderful sister-in-law) who act as sounding boards — I’ll tell them about a situation, and they’ll help me see gaps in my thinking or point out potential solutions. That’s important because social support is beneficial as long as the focus is on problem-solving, not on excessive problem-talk.
Ignore Toxic Positivity
When you’re struggling, other people often don’t know what to say and out of kindness (or discomfort) try to make the situation better. Unfortunately, it often backfires.
Toxic positivity usually starts with the following phrases: “Well at least…” “Look on the bright side” or “It could be worse.” And I've personally have heard: “At least you get a break from parenting.” That doesn’t help because I don’t want a break from parenting. I want to see Lucy every day, and I know I’m missing moments. You have the right to ignore toxic positivity.
Watch Your Whys
A person with an optimistic explanatory style is more likely to interpret the cause of a setback as temporary, specific, and within their control (sounds like: I didn’t get the job because I didn’t research the company and wasn’t as prepared as I should have been). A setback is perceived as providing information leading to solutions.
A person with a pessimistic explanatory style is more likely to interpret the cause of a setback as permanent and doesn’t see how he or she can influence the outcome (sounds like: I didn’t get the job because I’m not smart enough).
Both styles have consequences. A person with a more optimistic explanatory style will likely view the adversity as a challenge, put in the time to refine his or her skills, maintain confidence, and rebound more quickly. The person with a more pessimistic explanatory style may start to feel overwhelmed, dwell on the setback, and take longer to bounce back.
Embrace the Suck, But Pivot Toward Hope
One of the biggest things that builds your resilience is actually dealing with adversity. All too often, it can be tempting to avoid the unpleasant emotions, or numb them, when in reality, facing those things is what will help you move through. What’s important is to learn the lessons you need to learn and feel the emotions you need to feel, and then pivot toward hope.
Hope is a well-researched concept, and it’s actually a thinking style. The three components of hope are: having realistic goals; creating multiple pathways to achieve those goals, which includes identifying the obstacles that may occur; and believing in yourself and your ability to overcome those obstacles. Here are some questions to help coach yourself toward a mindset of hope:
- Ask yourself what are you striving for? What’s your goal?
- Where are you at right now? What does today look like? What is missing in terms of getting you from where you are today (“here”) to where you want to be later on (“there”)?
- What can you do about it? Who can help you? How?
While I was able to cope with this challenge on my own (with a huge thanks to my amazing friends), sometimes more help is needed. Whether it’s sudden or chronic stress that impacts your well-being, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help if you realize that you can’t cope on your own. Reaching out for help is also a tremendous sign of resilience.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Paula Davis is the CEO of the Stress and Resilience Institute, and her book, Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being & Resilience, will be published by the Wharton School Press on March 16, 2021.