When the clouds converge, practise gratitude for the smallest of glimmers, and learn to dance in the rain.
For many of us, 2020 has been a doozy. In Australia, bushfires, floods and the coronavirus pandemic caused heartache and hardship across the country.
Everywhere, plans were derailed. My brother-in-law and his American fiancée had to cancel their wedding and found themselves stranded on different continents awaiting the moment borders reopened so they could reunite. Others had to endure death, illness and grief without their usual circle of friends and family on hand to support them. Millions of people lost their jobs or the businesses they worked so hard to build.
The challenge for anyone who has experienced this type of adversity is how to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and carry on. How do you reset after a blow to your hopes and dreams? How do you find the will to rise from defeat and try something new?
Mindset is critical to overcoming adversity, says psychologist Dr Tim Sharp, founder of The Happiness Institute. Without hope and optimism, “we’re more likely to give up and less likely to use other strategies”.
Optimism isn’t to be confused with ‘positive thinking’, says Dr Sharp. “It is important to be positive and to focus on what’s going well, but it’s also important to face up to the cold hard realities in a constructive way. The most useful ‘mindsets’ are probably gratitude, and one we could call ‘solution-focused thinking’.”
Adversity – whether a bushfire, pandemic, or a personal loss – affects people differently at different times. “Many people, in fact, will not experience any negative impact on their mental health, even if they’re feeling a bit more anxious,” he says. Others, especially those with a history of mental ill-health, may experience a higher risk of depression, anxiety and maybe even post-traumatic stress disorder.
As difficult as it may seem, it’s possible to turn an adverse event into a positive experience. “Look for the silver lining in the cloud,” says Dr Sharp. “There’s no need to deny the reality of negative life events, but it’s also possible that there might still have been something positive in the negative, something worthwhile and meaningful.”
If you are looking for strategies to help reset after a tough time, Dr Sharp advises asking yourself the following questions:
- What went well?
- What did I do that worked?
- What didn’t go so well and what can I learn?
- What are my goals now and do I need to reset them or adjust my expectations? And what do I need to do to get there?
- Who can help me? And how can I elicit their support?
Answer with honesty and use what you learn to move forward. “Focus as much as you can on what went well and on what you can learn to make things better in the future,” says Dr Sharp. The skills we need to overcome adversity “Different strategies work for different people,” says Dr Sharp. “That being said, there are a number of evidence-based skills that in general, will help most people.”
Focus on what you can control, accept or let go of what you can’t, and take care of your physical health and wellbeing by eating and sleeping well, and exercising regularly. Hold on to hope and optimism by reassuring yourself that this hardship won’t last forever, you’ve coped with challenges before, and you’ll cope with this one. Seek out positive news stories to remind yourself that there is still a lot of good in the world.
Stay connected to family, friends and colleagues. “Even if you can’t be with them physically, you can and should do all you can to stay in touch by using whatever technology and means are available,” says Dr Sharp. It’s vital to remember that we’re not alone and that we can ask for help – or offer it – at any time.
Approach adversity from a position of strength, offers Dr Sharp. “Ask yourself what’s worked in the past and how and where you can use this now.”
And, crucially, don’t forget pleasure and joy. “Happiness and positive emotions are still very important and valuable,” says Dr Sharp. “The experience of real positive emotions increases our chances of coping, and coping well, as well as increasing the likelihood we’ll connect with others if and when we need to.”
Treat yourself with the compassion you extend to others. “Self-compassion is one of the most powerful ways to bring about changes in brain architecture and function which lead to emotional resilience,” writes Dr Diana Korevaar in Mindfulness for Mums and Dads: Proven strategies for calming down and connecting.
Dr Korevaar suggests practising a loving-kindness meditation, where you repeat a set of phrases such as ‘may I be safe, may I be well, may I be happy, may I be at ease’ to build your sense of compassion.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Dr Sharp. “Whatever happened, be kind to yourself and note that you tried your best under the circumstances,” he says.
If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, you should consult your GP for guidance. Help and support is also available at beyondblue.org.au.