Welcome to week 4 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.
Each month of The Year of Happy has a section like this, to offer troubleshooting advice when it’s hard to be grateful or when it’s hard to be kind. But this month’s “When it’s hard…” is a bit different. Because when it’s hard to be resilient, we aren’t simply not feeling grateful or not feeling kind. We’re feeling depressed, hopeless, or chronically stressed, and the way forward is far from clear.
Many people struggling with trauma find that way forward in therapy, and this course is no substitute for it. But if you want to gain an initial understanding of some common obstacles to resilience, read on.
Problem: I feel isolated
It’s a natural human tendency to feel alone in our suffering. No one has ever felt so anxious, stressed, or hopeless, our hearts seem to be telling us, even though humans have been suffering for millennia. Perhaps it’s because we compare ourselves to others around us – our normal family members or friends-with-perfect-lives-on-Facebook – and find ourselves sadly lacking.
The balm for this isolation is what psychologists call “common humanity,” recognizing that everything we struggle and feel is part of the human condition. Studies have shown that people who feel alone in their stress are more prone to depression and less likely to take active steps to overcome it, including getting support from others. Meanwhile, people who see their stress as part of being human are more likely to reach out to others. They find meaning in it and eventually feel happier and more satisfied with life.
To break the isolation, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal recommends that we talk more about our own suffering and pay more attention to others’ suffering. Even if people aren’t willing to confide in us, we can simply imagine their suffering. As you lay sleepless at night, worried about a child, think of all the other insomniac parents out there with the same concerns; when a diagnosis shakes you to the core, think of all the other people who just received the same bad news (and then, if you wish, go seek them out for support).
Jane McGonigal – Kelly’s twin sister – explains how social connections played a part in her recovery from a debilitating concussion, and why you should seek allies in your post-traumatic growth:
Problem: I catastrophize
Sometimes what hurts us most is not trauma, but the threat of it. One small thing goes wrong – a missed deadline at work, a twinge in the chest – and suddenly our brains have zoomed forward to the inevitable tragedy of unemployment and heart attack. This is called catastrophizing, and it can inflate small struggles into chronic worry.
In their book The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte explain five steps for putting things into perspective:
- Write down your chain of beliefs: How is your brain jumping to total tragedy? In the case of the missed deadline at work, it might go something like this: I totally messed up, and the client is going to be so annoyed. We’re going to lose the contract, and my boss is going to blame me. He’s bound to put me on probation, and then I’m going to get fired.
- Estimate the probabilities of each step: The belief chain above has five steps leading from mistake to unemployment. How likely is each? Probabilities decrease down the line because each step is dependent on the one before it. So if there’s a 75% chance of the client being annoyed and a 40% chance of losing the contract, there might be a 20% chance of you getting blamed and a 4% chance of being put on probation, and maybe a 1% chance of getting fired.
- Write down a best-case alternative. Here, Reivich and Shatte ask you to be totally crazy and comical and come up with something ridiculous to jolt you out of a fatalistic mindset. If you missed a deadline, then, maybe your boss will recognize that you have profound creative genius that needs to have more freedom from silly things like deadlines, and upgrade you to the corner office. (Hah – at least you’re smiling now.)
- Identify the most likely implications. Now that we’ve had a laugh, we can get serious and find the middle ground – what’s actually, most probably, going to happen. Maybe you will lose the contract and your boss will demand an explanation, but he will recognize that your department is understaffed and temper his reaction accordingly.
- Problem-solve the most likely implications. With that scenario in mind, you now know what to do: come up with a plan to avoid such delays in the future, and be prepared to explain where you need the extra manpower. That will help the meeting with your boss go smoothly and cut off the rest of the catastrophe chain.
Problem: My emotions get out of control
When we catastrophize, our fear about the future seems to get out of control. But we can also be consumed by anger, sadness, guilt, or embarrassment. Maybe the smallest remark at work spikes your rage, or triggers your guilt about spending time away from the kids.
Situations like these call for what Reivich and Shatte call “real-time resilience.” We don’t have time to analyze the underlying beliefs that are causing these emotional storms; instead, we need a quick way to calm down. To exercise real-time resilience, remember these three phrases:
- “A more accurate way of seeing this is…” Sometimes our emotions run away from us because we’re interpreting the situation incorrectly. If you’re fuming because your coworker “undermined your authority” in a meeting, consider whether he might have been trying to offer a constructive suggestion.
- “That’s not true because…” Our brains are biased to seek out supporting evidence for our beliefs, so this tagline is particularly useful in instigating a mental 360. Scrounge around for detailed, concrete evidence that your beliefs might be wrong, such as “Joe asked me if I wanted to hear his ideas before the meeting, but I told him we could all discuss things together.”
- “A more likely outcome is…And I can…to deal with it.” If you’re anxious about the future, you can calm your fears with this formulation. Maybe you worry that your children will grow up to hate you because you’ve taken on extra hours at work; instead, realize that they probably won’t hate you but they will miss spending time with you, and you’ll have to plan extra weekend and evening bonding time to make up for it.
As you work on using these taglines, Reivich and Shatte warn against being too optimistic or minimizing the problem. The point is not to tell yourself everything’s hunky-dorey, but to deal with the real problems you’re having without getting distracted by intense, knee-jerk reactions. If you’re plagued by guilt, the solution is not to absolve yourself entirely and blame someone else, but to sketch a more realistic picture of what’s contributing to the problem. With steady practice, we can learn to use these taglines automatically whenever we feel out of control in the midst of an emotional situation.
Dartmouth professor Tracy Stecker explains more about the importance of self-talk – and how trauma can sneak up on us – in this article:
Reivich and Shatte see resilience as a skill that we all need all the time, not just when we’re experiencing adversity. Being in touch with our emotions and beliefs, seeing the positive, coping with stress, and connecting with others are skills that will always serve us well. It’s best to practice them now on the little bumps of life, so we have some practice before the storm comes.
Yet no amount of practice can prepare us for the reality of tragedy, and we can’t demand resilience and recovery before we’re ready. Trauma is painful, and that pain is part of life, too. But it’s a tiny comfort to know that, for many people, there will be some positive transformation on the horizon.
Sources and further reading
- 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