Here's how to heal and grow from life's toughest moments.

By Jennifer King Lindley
June 25, 2020
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There’s no sugarcoating it: Sometimes life hurts.

Losses, heartbreaks, setbacks of all kinds can rock us to the core. “Feeling bad after your life is upended is totally normal,” says Sarah Lowe, PhD, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health. “But humans are also programmed to be resilient—to grow and learn from even difficult things.”

ILLUSTRATION BY DAVIDE BONAZZI

Psychologists are increasingly studying the possibilities of what’s known as post-traumatic growth: that surviving hard periods in life can often make us more focused, more compassionate, more spiritual, and more aware of our own strengths and possibilities. A multiyear study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the emotionally healthiest subjects had experienced some kind of significant adversity, such as divorce, the loss of a loved one, or a grave illness.

“These events can shake us and strip away our assumptions. They push you to reexamine what is most important,” says Ann Marie Roepke, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Evoke Training and Consulting in Seattle. “You learn things about yourself you never would if life was clear sailing.”

That’s not to diminish the suffering such events cause, notes Roepke: “Pain and growth can coexist.” Know there may be stops and starts. “Post-traumatic growth is a journey, and everyone is on their own timeline,” adds Laura Silberstein-Tirch, PsyD, a psychotherapist in New York City and author of The Everyday Guide to Self-Compassion: How to Be Nice to Yourself. “It can start with small moments of just noticing what you are feeling and accepting it rather than fighting it.” Often psychotherapy can be a crucial tool in helping you work through your feelings and find meaning, Silberstein-Tirch explains.

Need some inspiration? Here are some hard-earned lessons from people who have been there. They show how our lowest moments can pave the way to richer lives. “Just knowing growth is possible after trauma can itself be healing,” says Roepke. “As long as we don’t pressure or shame ourselves for our struggle.”

Allow your hard times to teach you compassion

A longtime meditation teacher and author of books including The Four Noble Truths of Love, Susan Piver still has struggles like anyone else. “Once I was wrestling with a painful relationship problem that was really troubling me,” Piver recalls. “I went around and around with it. I just couldn’t think my way out.” Frustrated, Piver sought the counsel of one of her teachers, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist sage.

“I expected this brilliant scholar to give me a doorway to open, advice that would make the problem go away. Instead Rinpoche told me, ‘Think of how much compassion you will have in the future for others who are struggling with this too.’ ”

Piver says, “It was an extraordinary moment.” His remark changed her feelings of isolation into ones of deep connection with others: “I went from thinking, ‘What’s wrong with me? How come I can’t fix this?’ to realizing everyone suffers. Countless people are struggling right now.” That realization was empowering, she says. “My heart will open to them.” Your own difficult times can be a powerful engine of empathy, too. “There is something about being with people who have experienced exactly what you have that trumps every other form of help.”

Savor the little things

2008 was a difficult year for Neil Pasricha. His wife had asked him for a divorce. His best friend committed suicide after a struggle with mental illness. Pasricha cast about for a way to move forward from this bleak time.

Losses can make you appreciate what remains all the more, he found. “I started putting myself in a better mood by intentionally contemplating all the small pleasures that were still out there,” he recalls. He posted such little delights on his blog: underwear warm out of the dryer, free soda refills at your favorite restaurant, being right there when a new line opens at the supermarket. All that savoring struck a chord with followers. Eventually, he compiled his musings into The Book of Awesome.

“We will all get lumps and bumps in life,” Pasricha says. “But there are so many amazing things, and we only have a finite time on earth to enjoy them. A positive mindset helps soften every blow you get from a nasty email, a friend letting you down, or a bad news story flying across the headlines.”

Give yourself credit for your strengths

“When you are first faced with a tragedy, you often doubt your ability to cope,” says Amy Morin, MSW. “But often, you don’t have a choice in the matter. You realize you are stronger than you think.” Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, was 26 when she was widowed; her mother had died three years earlier. “There were days I thought I was in a horrible dream,” she says.

A therapist by training, Morin understood such feelings were natural: “I knew I had to balance allowing myself to feel bad with pushing myself toward finding a new normal.” She bought a motorcycle, enjoying the solace of the open road.

And she made a point to give herself credit every night for the day-to-day strengths that were helping her make it through.

Among them, forgiveness: “When you are grieving, well-intentioned people can say hurtful things. ‘Don’t worry, you will get married again!’ I wanted to slap them. But I surprised myself. I was able to take a step back and think, ‘OK, your heart is in the right place.’ ”

And bravery. “I was always the shy kid hiding in the back of the class,” Morin notes. But giving the eulogy for her husband in front of hundreds of people, she pushed a lifetime of that self-consciousness aside. “I didn’t care if I stumbled over my words. I needed those people to hear his stories. If someone had told me I was capable of that, I wouldn’t have believed them.”

Morin now tells her own patients: “When you start to doubt yourself, write out a list of five reasons why you are strong enough to handle this. It’s a reminder: I got this.”

Learn to look for the "hidden advantage"

In the summer of 2013, a freak boating accident almost claimed Lindsey Roy’s life and resulted in an amputated left leg, a severely injured right leg, and a damaged right arm. Grueling months of surgeries and rehab followed. A mom of two, then ages 2 and 4, she remembers sliding out of her wheelchair and dragging her injured body up the stairs when her kids needed her.

During those early dark days, Roy felt grief, anger, depression. “I was trying any coping mechanism I could to keep myself out of the hole.” She started intentionally asking herself a question: “Yes, this is horrible—but is there any good that has come of it?”

“Many days I could not come up with anything,” she recalls. Then her 4-year-old son offered to bring her one of his stuffed animals to help her feel better. “I ended up with a huge pile of them around me,” she says with a laugh. (He was especially solicitous of a stuffed caterpillar who was also missing a leg.) In that moment, Roy got a glimpse of one silver lining: “Maybe going through this will help my kids grow up really open to diversity, really empathetic and caring.”

It shifted her whole perspective. Roy, chief marketing officer of Hallmark, has since made looking for the “hidden advantage” a daily practice, from finding it’s easy to paint your toenails when you can take your leg off to helping others by sharing her experience as an inspirational speaker. “Being on the lookout for the positive in a situation is a habit anyone can adopt. It takes practice,” says Roy. “But when I do it, I can feel my whole energy changing.”

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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