When we experience a highly negative adverse event, inevitably, it changes us. The psychological research tells us that how we respond is a consequence of our individual differences; both our genes and our experiences. For some, immediately after an adverse event, their happiness and ability to cope reduces and never fully recovers to the level it was before. For others, their happiness reduces and after some time reaches the same level it had been. In a further group of people, their level of happiness and satisfaction with life and ability to cope reduces in the same way as others. However, when it increases, it does so to a level higher than before. Psychologists call this post-traumatic growth. It is the notion that following adversity some people are changed for the better.
How can that be? If you’ve lost a loved one, received a terrible medical diagnosis or run into financial hardship. How can you ever be happier and more satisfied than you were previously? Well this is where individual differences come in. Our capacity for resilience, or our ability to recover quickly when we run into difficulties, is dependent on what we have been exposed to previously, in addition to our genetic make-up. If, for example, you have faced tragedy or trauma before (experience), the chances are you will be better equipped to cope in the future. Adversity actually strengthens our resilience.
Though some of what we bring to the table is determined by a combination of genes and experience, helpfully we can boost our psychological resilience by re-examining how we appraise the event. I believe it is your perspective and how you think about the event that matters most of all, because it is something you can exert control over. Your resilience and the ability to ‘come back’ to yourself after something awful, is partly dependent on your thinking style.
When my husband died much too young, I’m sure I would have been forgiven for staying in bed and crying for days and weeks on end. That behaviour would be congruent with such an event. My life as I had known it was over and it was all out-with my choice and control. However, despite the devastation, I had three small children that needed me desperately. It’s not that I wasn’t distressed, cried frequently in the early days and asked myself ‘why did this have to happen to our family’? It’s just that I also knew I had responsibilities that no-one else could fulfil. And furthermore, I didn’t want anyone else to. I needed to endure this, while also fulfilling my role as a mother. Surviving the loss became my focus; my perspective. I had such amazing support from my friends and family, but there comes a point where you realise that nobody else is coming to save you; you must do that all on your own. That is all at once sobering and empowering.
I can say without doubt, that my husband’s death has altered how I think about life. In the intervening two years, I have embraced new things and practice gratitude for what I have. I believe wholeheartedly that some of the opportunities that have come my way and the changes I have made, are largely due to learning the harsh lesson of losing someone close. There are days when a positive mind-set can feel elusive. Thankfully those days are not frequent.
If you need help appraising negative events in your life, reach out. You just need to take the next step. Increasing your ability to shift your perspective and embrace the possibilities in life, gives you a fighting chance to enter that third group, where post-traumatic growth blooms.