Friday 21 October 2016

Well-being: Testing times

When the going gets tough, the tough learn how to enjoy the good times

Published 28/07/2015 | 02:30

Self-care: Get a massage
Self-care: Get a massage

A friend of mine recently experienced an annus horribilis, one of those awful years when every answer is 'no' and every light is red; one of those years when you think things can't get any worse... and then they do.

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We've all had these days, months and years, but why is it that some of us cope better than others? My friend didn't just survive her annus horribilis; she thrived. And it made me realise that those who cope best have very similar attitudes.

To begin, they know that hardship is inevitable. More to the point, they know from experience that some of their greatest setbacks have paved the way for their greatest gains.

There's an old Taoist story that captures this paradox beautifully. One day the only horse of an old farmer runs away. His neighbours come by to sympathise. "Such bad luck," they say. "Maybe," says the farmer. The next day the horse returns, bringing with it three wild horses. "How lucky!" say the farmer's neighbours. "Maybe," says the farmer.

The following day, the farmer's son, who works the field with his father, tries to ride one of the wild horses only to be thrown to the ground, breaking his leg. "Such bad luck," say the farmer's neighbours. "Maybe," says the farmer. The day after, military professionals come to the village to enlist young men into the army. The farmer's son, who is resting his broken leg, is deemed unsuitable. "How lucky!" say the neighbours. "Maybe," says the farmer.

Those who cope best with adversity have the spirit of the farmer. They don't think "why me?" They wonder "why now?". Because they are aware of the capricious nature of life, they have an attitude of flexibility and flow.

They don't wallow in the pain either. Author Eckhart Tolle, writing in the The Power of Now, suggests that we "observe the peculiar pleasure you derive from being unhappy". Some of us are all too ready to accept the victim label. Those that cope best prefer to be the hero.

The good thing about bad times is that they toughen us up and make subsequent adversities seem easier by comparison. Researchers call it "post-traumatic growth" and they say our psychological functioning can increase following a traumatic event. And really, what life lessons do we learn when everything is going our way?

Creating more structure in her life also helped my friend get through her annus horribilis. She knows that we can shift the feeling of helplessness that comes with adversity by gaining a sense of even illusory control. As the saying goes: "If you don't know what to do, do something".

When chaos strikes, those that cope best know they can only control the controllables. They join the gym or start a healthy eating regime.

However, they don't overburden themselves. Setbacks and losses should be thought of as emotional labour. Delegate duties at work, restrict yourself to one appointment a day and opt out of any extracurricular obligations that aren't mandatory or beneficial.

To do this you have to reach out, another coping skill that not many of us have got to grips with. Those that do best during adversity know how to ask for help or, at the very least, they know how to answer the phone. If you're the type to avoid phone calls from friends when the going gets tough, remember that the very act of picking up the phone - even if you feel like you have nothing to say - is a reminder that you're not alone.

Besides, you might even get a laugh. "Humour is an affirmation of dignity," wrote Romain Gary, "a declaration of man's superiority to all that befalls him".

While I don't want to undermine this quote (it's one of my favourites), I must admit that I feel the same way about red lipstick. Make-up is a morale-booster during times of stress, a prime example of 'fake it 'til you make it'. If you can take an extra 20 minutes to get your look together in the morning, then you're 80pc there.

Indeed, any type of morning ritual works wonders. A morning ritual - whether it's meditation, exercise or even just 10 minutes of planning - alleviates stress and makes you feel like you're in control of your day, rather than the other way around. A soundtrack helps too. This is no time for maudlin, melancholy music. The prescription when the going gets tough is disco, Motown and lots of Stevie Wonder...

Alcohol consumption tends to increase during crises. There's no doubt that it's an effective emotional anaesthetic in the short-term. In the long-term, it prolongs the pain and makes the eventual outpouring of grief much more pronounced. Try to get into the habit of reducing your alcohol consumption when life gets hard - it makes all the difference.

Or get a massage instead. Self-care should be prioritised during setbacks and massage, yoga and other forms of bodywork help release emotional trauma before it manifests as a "bad back". Try to get a few extra hours of sleep too. You're going through an emotional marathon and you need to treat your body accordingly.

My friend is coming to the end of her annus horribilis and she wants to celebrate. These days she's the first to suggest a weekend break or a night out in a new restaurant. This is another habit of those that cope best with adversity. If bad times are inevitable, they reason, well then, it's imperative to let the good times roll.

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