That's odd, thought Heidi Gottlieb, a 30-year-old TV producer and new mom, when she woke up with double vision one summer day in 1990. She figured the problem would vanish as quickly as it had appeared, but when it didn't, her doctor ordered an MRI, which revealed a tumor in her brain. And so began her health saga with cancer, one that has involved surgeries, radiation, misdiagnoses (doctors failed to notice the tumor's regrowth for 17 years), and more stress than she could ever have imagined. Three years ago, she received a cancer treatment known as proton therapy that arrested the tumor's growth.
Though Heidi wakes up each morning knowing there's a Ping-Pong ball - size tumor in her skull that could start growing again at any moment, you would never suspect she's gravely ill. Funny and outspoken, with a big smile and an infectious laugh, Gottlieb, at 52, is full of good cheer, sitting at a kitchen table in her sunny Port Washington, NY, home. "It's harder on some days to be positive, of course," she says, gazing out the window at her blooming garden. "But why not try? Why not choose to find the upside?"
Across the country, in Denver, Tara Sakraida, a 33-year-old real estate attorney, is experiencing challenges of a different kind. Upon graduation from law school, she found herself deeply in debt from student loans. This financial pressure has made her life an unrelenting uphill struggle to earn money in a cash-crunched economy. "The amount I owe will shadow me for decades," she admits.
But Sakraida refuses to be demoralized and bitter about her situation. "I am not giving away the power and promise of my life to this debt; I will not let it win and make me miserable," she says. "I'm teaching myself to look at the blessings I do have - I have my job, I have my friends. That's what I focus on."
Why do people like Gottlieb and Sakraida seem able to weather crisis with such courage and tenacity? The question of why some are strengthened by adversity while others fall apart isn't new, but the answer has only recently become clear as medical, psychological, and spiritual experts have identified the tactics that truly make a difference. No matter what kind of crisis hits, an individual has far more control over her endurance and success than was previously believed. By learning new coping tools, understanding the mind-body connection, and engaging in some focused spirit-lifting, it's possible to discover untapped reservoirs of fortitude.
The everyday upside: These insights and skills not only help when a life-altering crisis strikes, but also provide support through more mundane yet still wrenching challenges like a bumpy patch in your marriage. Here, how to come through tough times all the stronger.
Related: 8 Steps to a Successful Marriage
LET THE BAD NEWS SINK IN
One of the first and most critical steps in surviving a crisis with grace: acknowledging that you've hit rough times. "Pretending not to be in pain is stressful in itself," explains John Forsyth, Ph.D., director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program at the University at Albany, State University of New York. "Our culture says that it's not OK to feel pain and stress. But when we sidestep our inner anguish, our lives then morph into being all about avoiding pain." Kristin Harper of Birmingham, AL, found this out two years ago. As she and her husband lay asleep during a storm, an 80-foot oak tree crashed through their roof, leaving her with two black eyes, a destroyed home - and nowhere to live for months.
"I was totally overwhelmed," says the mother of two young sons. "I couldn't figure out where to start - the insurance, the contractors, how to raise our boys in the midst of this. I just tried to keep my head down. When I finally crumbled and admitted I couldn't cope, that was the turning point. I asked for help, and our community was incredible. They showered us with generosity, even new underwear from Target," she recalls.
As Harper found, a duck-and-cover mentality allows a crisis to get the upper hand, because powerful negative emotions simply can't be bottled up. A growing body of research shows that subjects who try to avoid upsetting feelings have far higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder than those who experience and express their emotions.
This doesn't mean you should worry and wail nonstop, however. Instead, "listen to what words you use to describe the problem. If you say 'always' or 'never,' it could mean you're catastrophizing - escalating a bad event into end-of-the-world proportions," says Brenda Stockdale, director of mind-body medicine for RC Cancer Centers in Atlanta. This is common for people in crisis, and being able to turn off this type of thinking is a valuable tool. "Research shows that resilient people respond appropriately to acute danger, then quickly disengage when it's finished," explains Charles Raison, M.D., clinical director of the Mind-Body Program at Emory University School of Medicine. "Non-resilient types tend to keep chewing on the danger long after the crisis has passed."
Related: Be a Calmer Mom
ACCEPT WHAT YOU CAN'T CHANGE
Once you work through some fear and sadness, you can take on an equally thorny challenge: "Acknowledge that you may not be able to control the situation," says Forsyth. Heidi Gottlieb has learned this during her endless roller coaster of a medical journey: "My illness has taught me patience, because I didn't have a choice. I had to accept my lack of control over my situation. It doesn't matter what plan I had in mind. You can change your doctors. You can change your thoughts. But your body may have its own timetable."
Making peace with your powerlessness is crucial: It will help you sidestep denial and shift your mood back to an even keel faster, says Mark Lerner, Ph.D., a traumatic-stress expert in Melville, NY. "Realizing that it's OK not to be OK normalizes our experience and gives us a sense of control and that eventually things will be OK," he says. "We realize that even if we're not sleeping, we're having repetitive thoughts, or we're feeling jumpy, we're not crazy; we're not losing it. Acknowledging that this is a transitional time can bring hope."
There's also a transformative tactic known as dialectical thinking, which means embracing opposing emotions. "Usually, if you are grieving a loss or under enormous stress, you believe that you cannot experience peace or joy," Stockdale explains. "Dialectical thinking gives you permission to do both - say, even though you are suffering from a major life loss, you can still feel joy in a given moment."
One way to achieve this perspective involves reprogramming that little voice inside your head. "Rather than think, I'll never survive this, try, I'm having the thought that I'll never survive this," advises Forsyth. "This gives people space to know they are not their thoughts; they still have choices," he says. "You recognize the presence of a troubling thought, then let it go without getting more involved in it."
Another strategy is "to challenge the upsetting thought and see how it may not be true," says Andrew Bernstein, author of The Myth of Stress. Bernstein compares people in crisis to children afraid of the dark: "If I'm a child who believes a monster's under the bed, I'm going to believe that until you show me there isn't a monster there. Similarly, the more insight we have into situations that scare us as adults, the less frightened we are."
MANAGE THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION
"One of the best things to do in a crisis is get biology on your side by tapping your body's ability to heal and calm itself," says Stockdale. There is, for example, a direct link between increased production of the stress hormone cortisol and a person's inability to function during crisis. "When we're in fight-or-flight mode, we're catapulted into a state that's less advantageous for problem-solving," she explains.
Deceptively simple as it may sound, the most effective means of lowering cortisol levels lies in regulating one's breathing. Rapid, shallow breathing sends a message to the adrenal glands that we're in fight-or-flight mode, which in turn further ramps up cortisol production. "It's like battery acid on the memory centers of the brain," explains Stockdale; if you've ever drawn a blank on what to do right after a fender bender, you were probably experiencing stress overload.
Controlled breathing may help in just 30 seconds. Take a slow, deep breath through the nose, advises Lerner; hold for five seconds, then slowly exhale through the mouth "while thinking, 'Relax' or 'I'm handling this,' " he says. "Repeat this several times. Not only will you help your stress levels calm down, but your bloodstream will become enriched with oxygen, which increases energy" - a precious commodity in off-kilter times.
Beyond this breathing, there are other simple tools to try when life hurls curveballs your way. "There is a back-and-forth exchange between brain and body: Thoughts and emotions activate stress pathways that affect bodily functioning, and vice versa," explains Charles Raison, M.D., a psychiatrist at Emory University and cnn.com's mental health expert. "This is why activities like meditation and exercise, which can enhance the body's functioning, wind up improving our moods." In fact, studies show that people who are aerobically fit produce less inflammation in response to stress than those who aren't, and individuals with higher percentages of body fat show impaired cognitive resilience when dealing with acute emotional stress.
FOCUS ON FAITH
Of course, many people depend on prayer when hard times hit, and for good reason: The ability to turn one's confusion over to a higher power, to find solace in psalms or other writings, or to simply believe is a great boon when the chips are down. "Faith involves trusting that whatever is happening has a meaning and a purpose. Even hard times can teach us something," says Elizabeth Lesser, author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. "Having faith loosens our need to control the outcome of life, which is good because it's impossible to control something as unruly as life anyway." Or, as Michael Mooney, president of the National Association of Christian Ministers, puts it, "Not only should we believe who God is, but we should believe that He is a rewarder of faith. We need to stay fixed on hope and the strength that comes from it."
Psychologist Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, offers this advice: "Even when things don't work out, you can still say you trust life. It's an approach based not on logic or factual evidence, but rather on lived wisdom. Circumstances may not be perfect, yet you still can be a trusting, optimistic person. Each of us must ask ourselves where we stand when it comes to mystery. Do we try to hide from life, or do we instead trust that whatever happens, we're going be OK?"
Or even better than OK. "Resilience isn't enough," insists Lerner. "We can live better lives after a crisis. Adversity creates a pool of energy in us that has tremendous potential. How we use it is our challenge--to sink, or to discover new opportunity." This is how crisis becomes epiphany. Moore recounts the story of a 13-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis who knew she wasn't going to live very long. "After this girl died, her mother read a startling passage in her diary," Moore says. "It said, 'I will live the life that is given.' In spite of everything, this girl still had a positive attitude toward life." He pauses. "That's the secret."
-By Mark Matousek
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