Welcome to week 2 of The Year of Happy‘s month on resilience. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education.
Are you a resilient person?
Many researchers agree that we’re more resilient than we think. When something bad happens to us, it doesn’t hurt us nearly as much as we expect it will; we often bounce back to how we were before, if not stronger.
But resilience is easier for some of us than others. Having healthy relationships in childhood can help us learn confidence, emotion regulation, and impulse control, all of which serve us well when tragedy strikes. People who tend to be more open to experience are less likely to be knocked off kilter when adversity changes their plans for them. And some of it simply comes down to genes, which regulate how sensitive we are to stress and stress hormones.
Before you dive into the exercises below, consider taking the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory or the Stress Mindset Measure (pictured below, from “Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response”) to figure out your starting point:
1. Deliberate rumination
Rumination gets a bad rap, but it turns out there’s a healthy kind of rumination that’s crucial to coping with adversity: deliberate rumination. In deliberate rumination, instead of being plagued by intrusive thoughts, we purposely sit down and think about the difficulty that’s troubling us. We contemplate how we’ve been impacted by this negative event, what it means for our lives, and how we might find a way forward. Studies have linked deliberate rumination to post-traumatic growth.
While rumination simply makes us feel helpless and depressed, deliberate rumination actually serves a purpose: it helps us make sense of the world after our assumptions have been shattered. When something awful happens, our deepest beliefs about how the world works – like Bad things don’t happen to good people and The world is safe and controllable – become unhinged. Unless we find a new perspective, we’ll be stuck in anger and frustration. It can be helpful to distract ourselves and avoid thinking about tragedy in the short term, but eventually we have to confront it.
In this exercise, you write about the deep thoughts and feelings that you’re having about a difficult experience in life. Don’t force yourself to be overly positive or to find meaning in the experience; just write whatever comes to mind. Studies have tested this on veterans, sexual assault survivors, and breast cancer patients (among others), and it can be effective in as little as two days. People who do expressive writing report various health benefits, from fewer doctor visits to a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure. They also get better grades and get hired more quickly. For people suffering from PTSD, expressive writing can reduce their symptoms and distress.
Like deliberate rumination, expressive writing works because it helps us make sense of trauma. But expressive writing has a few unique benefits thanks to the written word. While thoughts can easily become overwhelming, writing forces us to focus on one small idea at a time. It engages different areas of the brain that can bring structure and order where there was formerly chaos. And in contrast to sharing our feelings with others, we don’t need to worry how another person will respond when we write only for ourselves.
Some people find that a new life narrative emerges after doing expressive writing for awhile. We may start to notice moments of growth and record that progress on paper. We may find new beliefs and stories emerging, new priorities and meaning. As University of Nottingham professor Stephen Joseph explains it, trauma is like a vase being shattered; post-traumatic growth is accepting that it will never be the same, but creating a beautiful mosaic out of the shards.
Journalist Andrew Solomon tells stories of parents with disabled, deaf, or otherwise different children constructing new narratives of meaning and identity in this TED talk:
3. Benefit finding
As we’ll see next week, one of the resilience practices that’s associated with many benefits is benefit finding: being able to see the positive in a negative situation. This doesn’t mean denying the harsh reality or being grateful that it happened, but acknowledging that even the worst events have some upsides. In one study of people doing expressive writing, the participants who experienced the most benefits used the most positive language, but also a moderate number of negative emotion words, too.
For this exercise, either in writing or in your head, try to identify any benefits you experienced from a recent difficult experience. Perhaps you discovered some inner reserves of strength, or were grateful for the love and support of your family. Reflect on what you learned and how you might be better off when future adversity strikes. If you simply can’t see any benefits, suggests health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, contemplate the benefits you’d like to experience in the future.
In this TED talk, double amputee, athlete, and model Aimee Mullins explains how she changed her attitude about her condition from wishing to be normal to seeing the opportunity in adversity:
4. Developing a positive stress mindset
The key to becoming “good at stress” is changing the way you think about it, McGonigal believes. So she recommends a series of reflections that will help you gradually shift your perspective on stress, meaning, and those heart-pumping nerves:
- 1. Figure out your initial stress mindset. Gain some insight into your beliefs about stress by observing how you talk about stress, how you react to other people’s stress, and what messages you hear from the media about stress. Most likely, you’ll discover that stress seems like something to avoid at all costs.
- 2. Rethink a past stress response. When was the last time you were really stressed and felt that stress in your body? Instead of seeing it as negative, try to reinterpret that feeling as normal and healthy – it was your body’s way of giving you energy, nudging you toward other people, and helping you learn from the experience.
- 3. Discover your sources of meaning. What matters to you in life? Write about the roles, relationships, activities, and goals that are most important to you, and how you would feel if they didn’t exist. You wouldn’t have any stress, but would that be a better life?
- 4. Discover your values. Spend 10 minutes writing about each of your top three values. Values are things like adventure, compassion, humor, or loyalty that we try to seek or uphold in the world. How do they play out in your life? How could you use them to help resolve a problem you have? McGonigal discusses how we can call upon these values in a moment of stress in this short video:
- 5. Understand the drawbacks of avoiding stress. Sometimes, in order to avoid stress, we turn down opportunities, resort to unhealthy behaviors (where’d all the ice cream go?), or lower the bar for ourselves. Has this ever happened to you?
- 6. Rethink future stress responses. The next time you feel physically stressed, take the same approach. Rather than telling yourself, “I need to calm down,” try saying, “I’m excited.”
5. Seeking social support
Another finding to file in the obvious folder: having social support helps us cope with difficult experiences.
People who have gone through all sorts of difficulties – natural disasters, terrorists attacks, war, or cancer – benefit from having stronger social networks. Being surrounded by people who care for us seems to buffer the stress and depression that sometimes follow trauma.
The best kind of support makes us feel like we’re not alone, but it also allows us to decide the direction of our recovery – sometimes well-intentioned family members can treat us like victims who need to be sheltered, rather than survivors finding our own way. As a result, many trauma survivors seek solace in support groups of people who just totally get it. These kind of open, understanding communities of cancer survivors or bereaved spouses can make us feel more optimistic, empowered, and in control, while also staving off depression.
The takeaway? When you feel the urge to hide your pain, let it guide you toward others – and together, you can find a way to recovery.
Pick a resilience practice
This month’s happiness practices are heavy on the reflection side. Grab a notebook, a cup of coffee, and a few spare minutes to try one this week:
- Deliberate rumination. You’re probably mulling over the trauma already, but set aside some time to think about it on your own terms.
- Expressive writing. If you want to get your thoughts in order, try putting pen to paper. Twenty minutes for four days in a row is the standard recommendation.
- Benefit finding. If the trauma is far enough behind you, you may be able to start seeing the positive side. Give yourself time to think or write about it.
- Develop a positive stress mindset. Run through McGonigal’s reflection questions at your own pace, either in your head or in writing. Then, apply your insights the next time you’re faced with palm-sweating stress.
- Seek social support. Spend some time with people you care about, and try to communicate what you’re feeling. Relationships won’t necessarily help if you keep everything bottled up.
These tidy solutions might make the process of growth seem simple, and of course it’s anything but. Yet there’s good news: simply knowing that post-traumatic growth exists makes us more likely to experience it. Simply reading about how certain stress is good for us can change our biology. So you’re already on the way.
Sources and further reading
- Stephen Joseph, What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth
- Jim Rendon, Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth
- Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It
- Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles