April 7, 2020

The surprising benefit of going through difficult times

Madison, Wis. — As Ella Fitzgerald once sang, “into each life some rain must fall.”

And while we can’t control just how much it rains, we can make a decision – let ourselves get wet, or break out the umbrella. The rain, of course, is the challenging times that we all face – medical diagnosis, divorce, job loss, even just navigating the teen years as a parent. And, while it may not seem like it at first, something positive can come from the experience.

“We have a choice in how we respond to difficult times,” said Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, Health Psychologist. “We can shut down emotionally and let ourselves become hardened by it, or we can grow from the experience.”

Mirgain is quick to note that feelings of anger, depression, anxiety, guilt or sadness during tough times are very normal, and we should never try to ignore those feelings. But, problems arise when we become stuck in those emotions.

“Receiving a serious medical diagnosis, for example, can cause psychological and physical stress – and it can even be traumatic. When patients are able to stay resilient, they are better able to cope with the medical condition, stay positive and even discover new aspects of themselves they never realized,” she said.

There is actually a term for the process – post-traumatic growth – and it refers to the benefit and personal growth that comes from experiencing a crisis. Or, as Mirgain likes to refer to the process – the Phoenix Phenomenon, suggesting that a new life arises from the remains of the old way of being. Research has found that up to 70 percent of people experience positive psychological growth from difficult times, such as a deeper sense of self and purpose, a greater appreciation for life and loved ones, and an increased capacity for altruism, empathy and desire to act for the greater good. While the transition from old to new was natural for the mythical creature, in the real world we can learn how to change and grow no matter the obstacles we face.

Make meaning

As we grow, we develop a set of beliefs about the world around us – it’s the foundation we build our lives upon. When we experience difficult times, it’s like an earthquake – unexpected – and it can break up that foundation and leave us feeling unsure of ourselves with parts of our lives reduced to rubble.

“An event like a divorce or the loss of a family member can draw our attention to the ways in which we take certain aspects of our lives for granted. It challenges our very identity and beliefs we’ve formed leaving us to ask questions we never thought we would have to,” said Mirgain.

When we are willing to ask and explore those questions – who am I, what really matters to me, what do I want my life to be about – we can begin to rebuild and construct a new foundation, often from the ground up, that is more authentic and based on who we really are and what’s important, rather than on the values others have placed on us. During this time of transformation, it is by letting go of the beliefs, roles, and aspects of identity that no longer serve us and having the willingness to grow into a new way of being that allows us to construct our lives in a way that feels more authentic and true.

“In many ways, we’re redefining ourselves,” she said. “We’re moving into a place where we can begin to explore and discover what we truly value.”

Metabolize the event

As Mirgain explained – learning and growing from an experience doesn’t mean denying the feelings that come with the process. But some people try to avoid negative emotions, and that can be a problem.

“When we try to bury our feelings, it can actually cause them to become even stronger in the future and prevent us from moving beyond the distressing emotions,” Mirgain said.

She recommends setting aside time to talk about the feelings either with a friend or a trained professional. Give yourself time and space to feel what you’re feeling. Cry, grieve – or as Mirgain suggests, go to a secluded spot outdoors and let out a primal scream of anger. Allow the feelings to come, and when they do, it then becomes possible to work through them. 

Cultivate a coping strategy

One of Mirgain’s favorite strategies for processing emotions is expressive writing.

“Expressive writing is best during the times we experience something mild to moderate, not a deeply traumatic event,” she said.

Mirgain shares that expressive writing has been shown to reliably improve both psychological and physical health by reducing stress and enabling us to reframe the events we’re experiencing. When writing, we place ourselves in the role of the hero or heroine, not the victim, and as a result it allows us to shift our perspective and find new meaning in our experiences.

“Our personal narrative shapes our view of the world and how we see ourselves,” she said. “Writing about what we’ve been through and the meaning we’re making from the experience, allows us to make sense of our experience and often find the silver lining in the situation."

Some questions to consider when writing are:

  • What do I want to be about in the face of this difficulty?

  • What would the person I want to be do right now?

  • What is the gift from this experience?

Another strategy to help as we’re in the midst of the experience is affirmations – short phrases we can repeat to ourselves to give us hope like, “Only good can come from this, I am safe,” “Out of this current difficulty, my life will be transformed into something beautiful,” “This too shall pass,” or “In the end it will be OK and if it is not OK, it’s simply not the end.” And it can also help us access inner resources we may not be in touch with, such as what Mirgain refers to as connecting with our "inner strength."

“Think about a time when you were worried or struggled and ultimately, it went better than you expected, all those challenges you’ve overcome, all the difficulties you’ve navigated and reflect on that part of you that has gotten you through," Mirgain said. “We can call on those moments at a later date to help remind us that we are stronger than we think."

It’s especially helpful when our thinking turns negative and there is a lot of self-doubt, fear or overwhelm. Connecting back with and remembering those past successes with our inner strength is stronger than any doubts or negative thoughts we might be having about our current difficulty.

Find your inner strength with this meditation from Dr. Mirgain

Prioritize self-care

Self-care, according to Mirgain, can help us heal. When we do something that makes us feel good in a healthy and constructive way, it can improve our mind-set. And there is the additional benefit that often in times of crisis we feel powerless because there may not be anything we can do. Taking care of ourselves is one thing we have control over and we can feel confident we’re doing our best to take care of our self.

One way to do this is to start working towards new goals and dreams. Small daily action steps can give you that sense of purpose and progress and structure that you need. Remember to reach out for extra support during this difficult time, there are people who will be there for you and there are those who have been through something similar who can share their perspective and encouragement.

And if you find yourself stuck and struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out to your physician for professional help if needed.