Today and in the upcoming posts I want to talk about getting through hard times. The fact is that hardship or crisis can befall us regardless of how well we plan and conduct our lives. If we look at world events, it is plain to see that individual, economic and societal comfort can no longer be taken for granted. Thus, I will discuss a variety of approaches that can assist us when we face hardship, crisis and trauma.
Let’s begin with resilience, which stands for an ability to bend without being broken; to rebound. To have psychological resilience means to readily recover from illness, depression, adversity, or the like. Armstrong, Galligan and Critchley concede that almost all types of mood disorders are the result of people’s experiences of major negative life events such as serious illness, job loss or death of a loved one. They write that stressful life events usually cause sudden changes in living conditions, which are difficult to adapt to. This can place a heavy demand on an individuals’ ability to cope and can lead to anxiety, stress and depression. Moreover, a negative life event can hinder people’s ability to cope with additional stresses. They not only become more vulnerable when they go through a significant, stressful life experience, but also they have an increased likelihood of another negative event occurring.1 (Translated, they are more likely to be kicked when they are down.)
We don’t have to look far to witness the possibility of compounding difficulties. Famously, Queen Elizabeth II referred to 1992 as her “annus horribilies” (her horrible year). The incidents that plagued her ranged from disappointing to insulting and from embarrassing to humiliating. They included Mauritius abolishing the Monarchy and a fire causing serious damage to Windsor Castle, followed by a public outcry about the possibility of the government paying for repairs. Then there was the announcement that henceforth the Queen would have to pay income tax. Closer to heart, the year brought her the separation of her son Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, complete with pictures in the tabloids of a male friend kissing Sarah’s feet. It included the divorce of her daughter Anne, Princess Royal. It saw the publication of a book that confirmed the rumours about the marital unhappiness of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, complete with publications of intimate phone conversations by both Diana and Charles, a prelude to their separation, which took place at the end of the year. Considering the Queen’s tasks of upholding stability, tradition and relevance, the comment in her November 1992 speech seems humble. She said:
I am quite sure that most people try to do their jobs as best as they can, even if the result is not always entirely successful.2
I also believe that most of us try to do our jobs as best as we can. Despite this, life can take an unplanned or undesired course. And when we are faced with a significant adverse life event its impact can be felt for a relatively long time, i.e. researchers found that the recovery period can often take two years.3 Therefore, since life remains unpredictable, anyone interested in achieving and maintaining high psychological wellbeing should be interested in what characterises and builds resilience.
Barbara Frederickson, the eminent authority on positivity, writes that her research indicates that resilience is strongly tied to positive emotions. You may recall that in my first blog post I wrote about the way we narrow our focus when we feel threatened, and how we tend to give our problems a lot of attention. According to Fredrickson, for many people faced with stress in their lives, positivity flies out the window. Yet when she reviewed students after the 9/11 crisis, she discovered that resilient individuals had an ability to experience positive emotions alongside their negative feelings. The resilient students did not suppress their pain or anxiety; they felt it like everyone else. The difference was that alongside their negative feelings, resilient individuals also felt joy, gratitude and love, particularly when they were connecting with others.4
Frederickson then conducted a study on resilience that tracked heart rate, blood pressure and constriction of blood vessels. In this experiment participants were made anxious by being told that they were to give a speech, which would be videotaped and then evaluated by their peers. Once their anxiety levels were raised, they were then informed that they might be shown a film clip, in which case they were not going to have to give the speech. Unbeknown to them, everyone was shown one of four film clips, two of which were mildly positive, one was neutral, and one was mildly negative. The cardiovascular activity of those who were shown the positive film clips returned to their original base levels the quickest, and those who had seen the neutral or negative clips took the longest. The study showed that positivity can “undo” negative emotions, and is therefore a key to recovering from negative feelings.5
Another study used functional magnetic resonance, a brain imaging technology, to gain insight into resilience. It tracked participants’ brain activity before and after an anticipated negative event. In resilient individuals, the orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region scientists associate with worry, was less activated in anticipation of a negative event. Translated, they simply worried less about the fact that a negative event could lay ahead and also recovered faster from this anticipation. Importantly, the study showed that resilient people have an ability to quickly let go of stresses and move on; they have “emotional nimbleness”.6
What this means is that in times of stress, we need to aim to worry as little as possible. We need to actively seek out activities and situations that can fill us with positive emotions – see our best friends, engage in activities we enjoy, consider everything we are grateful for, visit places that fill us with serenity etc. We need to try our hardest to let the stresses of the past go, let bygones be bygones and try to live as many positive moments as we can.
We will discuss resilience again next week.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2016