Nov 8, 2019
By Joe Grasso, PhD
Take a moment to recall the most recent setback you faced.
Maybe you lost out on a career opportunity, or were let go from a job. Perhaps you experienced the breakup of a romantic relationship or had a major conflict with a family member or friend.
Can you recall the thoughts that went through your head in the days and weeks that followed? What were your emotions in the aftermath and how did you handle them?
While you can’t fully control your thoughts and feelings immediately following a setback, how you deal with those thoughts and emotions, and the steps you take to move forward, can influence how quickly and fully you recover.
First, let’s get the tough news out of the way: Setbacks are one of life’s certainties and a universal part of the human experience. But there’s good news, too. Research studies, and likely your own experience, show that resilience in the face of adversity can help ensure that you bounce back, reduce the effects of stress, and even buffer against negative mental health outcomes.
More good news? Resilience can be learned. Even if you don’t believe you were born or raised to be resilient, you can still benefit from developing resilience skills that can boost your ability to manage stress, cultivate optimistic thinking, and engage in productive activities.
Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for a major obstacle to use resilience strategies and experience the benefits. In fact, using resilience strategies to tackle daily stressors can help you manage those headaches more effectively and make it easier to bounce back when life’s bigger challenges arise.
When you encounter adversity, you may feel strong emotions, such as disappointment, sadness, anger, grief, or frustration. You may also experience worry about the future or repetitive, negative thoughts about past events. These are all normal, if uncomfortable, reactions. While your instincts may tell you to avoid, eliminate, or suppress these reactions, following through on those instincts can actually make things worse.
Instead, try using mindfulness as a way to promote acceptance of what’s already occurred. Mindfulness means observing what’s happening in the present moment, without judgment or resistance, and it’s associated with lower emotional distress. It’s not about trying to change your thoughts and feelings. Rather, you’re paying attention to your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations without labeling or evaluating them as “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”. You’re accepting what already is, and allowing it to pass.
The simple act of noticing your experience with openness, curiosity, and a willing attitude can help you resolve tough emotions and move forward. The UCLA Mindful Awareness Resource Center provides free audio exercises to guide you through the practice of mindfulness, including one specifically designed for working with difficult emotions.
Adversity can undermine confidence in your ability to change your circumstances and influence your life direction. A crisis of confidence is even more likely if a setback caught you by surprise or felt outside of your control. For example, if you felt blindsided by a negative performance review, you may start to worry that no matter your efforts, you’re destined to fail. But those worries are not only inaccurate, they can actually lead to dangerous inaction.
The degree to which you believe that your actions determine your outcomes is called your locus of control. An external locus of control is the perception that your fate is out of your hands and mainly controlled by other people, unpredictable circumstances, or the randomness of the universe. This outlook can lead people to feel demotivated, helpless, and defeated.
The remedy is to focus on the factors you can control and remind yourself that you have the power to change where your life is headed. The belief that your attitude, effort, and persistence can bring desired life change is called an internal locus of control. By shifting to an internal locus of control, you’re more likely to invest time and effort in changing your circumstances because you believe your actions will pay off. As a result, you’ll be more likely to achieve the results you want.
Once you’ve reclaimed personal control, it’s time to consider new opportunities and plan how you can grow personally or professionally in your next chapter. Right after a disappointment, it’s healthy to reflect on what went wrong, but soon you’ll need to look to the future and set new goals that guide your next steps.
A new goal could be related to proactively addressing your setback, such as honing a professional skill, finding a new job, resuming dating, or mending your relationships. But you might also pursue a goal that simply serves to add meaning, purpose, or joy to your life. What’s a hobby or interest you’ve neglected? Is there a cause or organization that personally matters to you and could benefit from your time, talent, and effort? Are there self-improvement projects you are now ready to prioritize? Investing in this type of goal will help you refocus on what you value in life and inspire you to move forward.
No matter your goal, consider using the SMART framework to help you set the kinds of goals that improve your odds of follow-through and your likelihood of success.
When overcoming adversity and pursuing new goals, your attitude matters. An optimistic mindset is an especially potent tool for promoting positive emotions and buffering against mental health symptoms, and is even associated with improved physical health outcomes. However, two myths persist about optimism. One is that people are either inherently pessimistic or optimistic, without much ability to shift. The other myth is that optimism is based on a naive, unrealistically positive view of the world. Fortunately, the reality is more… optimistic.
Dr. Martin Seligman, a pioneer in positive psychology research, describes optimism as a modifiable trait based on our explanatory style, or how we make sense of what happens to us. You can develop a more optimistic explanatory style by adjusting where you fall along what Seligman calls the 3Ps: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.
Personalization refers to whether we mainly attribute negative outcomes to our efforts and positive outcomes to external factors, like luck or good timing. For example, if you believe a failed work project was completely your fault but your last career success was just a fluke, you’re personalizing in an unhelpful way. Instead, an optimistic attitude helps you recognize that your efforts and talents do contribute to your wins, giving you greater confidence. An optimistic stance also helps you take a more balanced view of setbacks as involving many factors. Next time you face a stressor, try noting the personal strengths that can help you make needed changes within yourself, while also recalling the outside forces that also contributed to the setback.
Pervasiveness refers to the ability to view a setback as a disappointing situation in one area of life versus an extensive problem permeating all aspects of life. An optimistic perspective on getting fired from a job would consider this a career-specific stumbling block, while also noting bright spots in other areas of life. Conversely, a pessimistic attitude might frame getting fired as evidence of being a failure in life. You can practice optimism by reminding yourself that a setback does not determine your identity.
Permanence refers to whether we view hardships, and the factors behind them, as lasting or temporary. For example, if you think of being single after a breakup as your long-term future because there’s something inherently unlovable about you, you’re engaged in pessimistic thinking about the permanence of the situation. Meanwhile, an optimistic mindset can help you recall your attractive and lovable qualities, as well as the ability to change your circumstances by becoming more socially active and meeting new people. In this way, optimism helps you view the outcome of a setback as momentary and ultimately, changeable.
After encountering adversity, it’s easy to feel daunted by what lies ahead, or to feel alone in your experience. That’s why it’s so important to reach out. Support from the people you’re closest to, or from others who understand your situation, can remind you that you’re not alone, normalize your experience, and give you hope for the future. For these reasons among many others, social support is a reliably strong predictor of positive physical and mental health outcomes.
When asking loved ones for support, it helps to be specific about your needs. You may ask friends or family to offer words of encouragement, keep you accountable, or even lend a helping hand as you pursue new goals. Asking for concrete types of support will help reduce ambiguity about how people can best help you and raise the chances that their attempts are worthwhile.
It’s important to note that even the best use of resilience strategies won’t fully prevent emotional pain. Feelings like sadness, anger, grief, frustration, and disappointment are inevitable. But resilience can still help you cope effectively with those emotions and motivate you to take productive action, which leads to better mental health.
Also, resilience doesn’t mean that you should be able to withstand major stressors without professional help. If you find that your distress is persistent or getting worse and that your ability to function at work, at home, or in relationships is impaired, consider talking with a therapist. Your therapist can help you address the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors fueling your distress and support you in building a life that’s defined by your goals and values, rather than by your adversity.
If you want help connecting with a therapist, Lyra can assist you. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.
DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Grasso, PhD is the Manager for Clinical Quality at Lyra Health and a licensed clinical psychologist. He specializes in mixed-methods research and evaluation, health care quality improvement and implementation science, and program development. Dr. Grasso also provides evidence-based psychotherapy for adults in San Francisco.