Perhaps it is the woman next door who recently lost her only son in the war. She’s grieving deeply, and you may not know what to do to help ease her pain. Perhaps it is a friend who lost his job of 20 years, and must now, at a later stage in life, face a bleak job market and compete with “kids” with advanced degrees and all sorts of new technology in their heads. Maybe your parent has been diagnosed with cancer, and her new meds don’t seem to be working. She’s depressed, anxious, living several states away and you can’t help but worry about her 24/7.
Or, your child who’s had a hard time in school has just been diagnosed with a learning disorder, and you’re wondering how to prepare him for the challenges that lie ahead. A dear friend of mine had to wait a long time before she was able to become pregnant, a good bit later in life than many. But finally it happened and she was joyous to give birth to twins. It was soon discovered that both boys were severely autistic.
Extreme stress is a part of life, and we can all relate to having moments where everything just feels like too much. Or we feel alone with our burdens…angry, disappointed, resentful. We may suffer a health crisis, a financial crisis or a crisis of faith. Maybe it’s a relationship that’s in peril, hanging on by a thread. We might, for the first time, brush up against feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or feel so overwhelmed that it’s hard to think of anything but our problems. Psychologically we’re stressed out to the max and physically our bodies can’t help but show signs of the wear and tear. These are the chapters in life when we’re most prone to getting sick, and also to having accidents. When I worked full time in bereavement at a Los Angeles hospice, we would tell patients’ friends and relatives to be extra careful behind the wheel of the car, as the deep, mind-numbing heartache of grief can be very distracting. If you’ve ever lost a sig other, you understand what it’s like to stare for hours at nothing.
Coping and Surviving
So how do we successfully cope when the going gets really tough? How do we not merely survive the experience, but develop the skills necessary to continue to fight the good fight—with sound mind and body, staying present, still stopping to smell the roses and feeling grateful to be alive? Do we drink more, drug more, sleep more, shut down, anything to escape? Maybe. There are times when temporary escapes and healthy distractions are helpful. But will these work for the long haul?
When human beings face the really big challenges in life, it is generally understood by healthcare providers, mental health professionals, and others who treat those striving to endure trauma, that there are indeed several characteristics that will help a person make it through the experience intact. For instance:
Perspective, or attitude, is a big one. There’s the person whose house burns down and says, “We’ve lost everything.” And the person who says, “Well, we still have the nails. We can rebuild.” If your glass tends to be half-full under usual conditions, that attitude will serve you well during hard times. As pioneer automaker Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” A wise (and wisecracking) friend of mine put it this way: “Sometimes life is splendor, sometimes it’s shit. It’s all about how you witness it.” (Finding the right mantra can help, too!)