What do you do when it’s not enough just to say, “This, too, shall pass”?
Many of life’s painful challenges are short-term. Others, like grief at the loss of a loved one, take time to play out but normally reach a conclusion—such as acceptance in the case of grief.
But sometimes no end is in sight. Such is the case with progressively debilitating illnesses that have no known cure. Other life events, like unemployment for a middle-age worker, can have a similar dispiriting sense of permanence. These situations produce stress, not in short bursts, but over the long run. Coping with them requires emotional endurance, the ability to keep an ordeal of indefinite length from sapping your emotional health.
This stamina is related to a trait called “resilience”—the ability to take life’s ups and downs in stride emotionally. Resilient people tend to:
- take the optimistic view of a situation
- focus on what goes right rather than what goes wrong
- have multiple sources of satisfaction
- have a supportive community of friends or family
Emotional endurance draws on the same resources, but it also requires a certain realism about what is possible. Focus on the positive as much as possible, but don’t expect always to feel positive. Recognizing the reality of the situation is also important, as is accepting the fact that a normal human being in your situation cannot always look on the bright side.
“Slogging along when we are in a swamp is highly underrated,” says Judith Paskiewicz, a psychologist and social worker. “Most difficult situations take just that. There are rarely magical, immediate or perfect solutions.” In the same realistic vein, she says it is important to give yourself credit for your efforts, especially when the ultimate goal looks frustratingly out of reach.
There are steps you can take to make you stronger for the long journey.
Find new sources of satisfaction and connection
“We don’t do so well with all our eggs in one basket,” says Paskiewicz. If the only thing that gives you a sense of satisfaction is your job, losing that job leaves you with nothing. If you have a hobby that makes you feel happily productive, you are better equipped for the stresses of unemployment.
Build and maintain social connections
A community of friends or family is invaluable, both as a support network and as a sounding board. “We do well when we have a social system that does our cheerleading,” says Sylvia Lafair, a leadership consultant and author of Don’t Bring it to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns That Limit Success. Paskiewicz adds that, when you’re with people who care about you, you can help face your fears by talking about them: “You don’t have to be in whatever it is alone. And if all you want is listening—no advice or suggestions—tell them so.”
Don’t miss the forest—look at the big picture
It pays emotionally to seek the good wherever you can find it, and to cultivate a habit of gratitude. “What you focus on pretty much determines your experience,” says psychologist and life coach Jeannette Samanen. “If you are in a forest and look just at one tree, that tree is going to be your experience.”
When nothing in your day-to-day life seems worthy of gratitude, you might find some solace by looking at the big picture and seeking a larger meaning in the events that have overtaken you. This is what happed for a friend of Lafair who, she says, “became a paraplegic in a car accident and at first thought life wasn’t worth living, then realized he was living for a reason.” The search for meaning may be helped if you are part of a religious or spiritual community that, in Samanen’s words, can give you “a sense that there is some larger purpose of which we are unaware.”
Work through your worries with a list
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you might want to attack your worries and cares by making a list. Write down every concern you can think of. You may find a long list that includes big questions along with everyday matters such as the bills that need paying this week. Some of these problems will have solutions. Others may not.
But just getting a chance to look at all your worries one by one helps tame them. You can sort them out and focus your attention on those that matter most and those that you can do something about. If nothing else, you gain a sense of control, which is one of the best remedies for stress.
Learn from the optimists
Know that you are not the first person to face a long, hard slog. Countless others have been in situations like yours, perhaps worse, and some have set an example that you might find useful.
One of these is actor Michael J. Fox, whose books chronicle his struggle with Parkinson’s disease and his hope that scientists will find a cure. M.J. Ryan, a corporate consultant and author, says Fox is an example of someone who shows all the key qualities of resilience, such as a sense of humor, a focus on a positive future and a willingness to grow.
As with the books you read, so too with the friends you choose. “You want to be surrounded by people who have had situations similar to yours and have really used these attitudes,” says Ryan. Real optimists, who don’t pretend that they never have a bad day, and who don’t judge you for having one, are good to have around.
The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life's Hurdles by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte. Harmony, 2003.
AdaptAbility: How to Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For by M.J. Ryan. Harmony, 2009.
Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist by Michael J. Fox. Hyperion, 2009.
Lucky Man: A Memoir by Michael J. Fox. Hyperion, 2003.
Don’t Bring it to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns that Limit Success by Sylvia Lafair. Jossey-Bass, 2009.