Take the Time to Recover from Negative Life Events

Most people encounter frustrating, negative and even traumatic experiences in their lives. Some become permanently stressed by these unfortunate happenings while others succeed in overcoming the acute distress and proceed in life with a resilient attitude. How can we all learn to handle setbacks, frustrations and even traumas and forge ahead with courage and optimism?

Traumas that were created by nature such as floods, storms, earthquakes or by human cruelty such as physical or mental abuse in childhood or adulthood, accidents, loss of employment, financial devastation or interpersonal relationship losses are some of the more common events that may contribute to a life-long misery for its sufferers. Yet, there are individuals who have endured some of these events with courage and resilience that spared them from life-long misery.

Researcher Richard Lazarus wrote about what he termed, “The marriage between emotion and thought.” He introduced the concept of “appraisal” as “the individuals’ unconscious assessment of what the events mean to them, or their loved ones, as the major component of survival.” This cognitive interpretation of the power of the situation or others on the individual determines the person’s chances for overcoming it or being crumbled by it. His model of coping in overcoming stress was either by problem solving – changing the situation or by changing the relation to the situation.

An extreme example that supports Dr. Lazarus model is of my uncle who witnessed the murder of his wife and teenage son by the Nazis then spent eight years in concentration camps yet survived and restored his life to normalcy. He accomplished this by realizing that his chances of survival in the concentration camp were minimal; he could not change this situation; he had to adapt to it. He developed an emotional determination to survive against all odds by changing his relation to the situation through his stubborn denial of pain, exhaustion and despair and by willing himself to stay alert and productive and thus useful to his Nazi tormentors.

Another example of a determined mind’s conquest occurred to a woman I knew who avoided being raped by a kidnapper due to her apparent fearless attitude and by developing a friendly, empathic connection with her “would be assailant”.

Though these extreme examples are unique, they support Dr. Lazarus’ model of emotional determination as a method we can all adopt in much less dramatic life stresses. By willing ourselves to use both emotional and cognitive solutions during stressful life events, we can increase our chances of overcoming extreme hurdles in our lives.

To recover from negative life events:

  • Affirm your power during a traumatic event by concentrating on your goal to survive and thrive afterwards.
  • Abstain from yielding to helplessness, fear and “worst case scenario” rehearsals.
  • Praise yourself for your intellectual and emotional resiliency as you keep your goal clearly in mind.
  • Embolden yourself to believe that you can overcome a traumatic event and survive to model for others the path to recovering from trauma.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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