This piece was by Andrew Reiner for The Washington Post, and was adapted for Young Post readers by Heidi Yeung. Read the full original version here.
In life, sometimes, things go wrong. It might be something as little as just missing being the last person able to squeeze on to the MTR, or something bigger, like messing up a school assignment that’s going to affect your grades.
You might get upset or annoyed for a bit, but then you get over it. Or you might get really overwhelmed and find it really difficult to disconnect from what’s stressing you out, which makes it hard for you to move on and affects other areas of your life.
If you said, “That’s so me” to the latter, keep reading. Here are some ways you can help yourself and learn to get out of that funk of sadness, depression, and self-blame.
Understanding the problem
Step one: recognise that you do have a problem, and that it’s okay, but that it is something you can and should take care of.
Some people can appear to go about life just fine. At school, friends and teachers may not even know you are sad for so long when things get tough. At home, family may miss the signs that you’re not happy. But it’s important that you see it: you lack whole-life resilience, which is the ability to bounce back when upsetting or stressful things happen.
It’s very possible you have a degree of resilience, and that, psychologists say, helps.
Still, you may be what’s called a Quick Sinker: someone who struggles to stay afloat when life’s daily waters grow rough.
You’re not alone
Social media memes and news stories illustrate that many of us aren’t getting by all that well - not when we’re over-stressed, over-caffeinated, very invested in a party, person or cause, and not getting enough rest, which are all factors that collectively drain us emotionally.
The topic of resilience has received a lot of media attention, and the internet is full of stories about how to not let things get you down. But when it comes to developing resilience in our private lives - with our family, at home and in public - few resources exist. Sure, you can find self-help books that help you navigate the grief and struggles of profound loss or trauma. But help for coping with everyday stressors? The main advice is to just handle it.
Why it’s so hard
Most psychologists and researchers define resilience as the ability to handle challenges and make the best of every situation.
The problem with this: most of us who are Quick Sinkers can’t just simply decide to become more upbeat and positive. You might as well be asking a Nokia user from the 90s to Facetime.
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With Quick Sinkers, the stressor of the moment feels like it will never go away. At that moment, all objective perspective gets thrown out the window.
You know intellectually that this reaction will be short-lived. But the fear that the problem may go on forever is what Martin Seligman, who founded the positive psychology movement, describes as “permanence” in his 1991 book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.
Although such fears fade by the end of the day, the anxiety of being a Quick Sinker doesn’t. And what’s so overwhelming is that any additional, unexpected responsibilities, such as having to fix help your dad understand how to send a gif on WhatsApp or getting an email about how a group project has to change a bit, feels like a game of Jenga - one more chore handed to you, and what resilience you have left will come crashing down.
Face your fears
In When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist teacher and nun, recalls when her first marriage suddenly and unexpectedly fell apart. After spending days on the floor grieving and indulging in self-pity (understandably), Chodron surprisingly turns her focus on her suffering. She finds answers and meaning in the very thing she desperately wants to ignore: how deeply she was hurt.
Another author, Viktor Frankl who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, his memoir on surviving Auschwitz in the second world war, employed a similar approach. What saved Frankl was finding meaning and purpose in his darkest days. At one point, Frankl, who was a psychiatrist, turns back after a seemingly successful escape attempt because he cannot abandon dying typhoid patients.
“In some ways,” he writes, “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
However, how can you apply that to your very different lives?
Imagine working part time at a fast-food restaurant – a job that includes many thankless tasks, including cleaning toilets. Cleaning up after people may suck, but how do you feel when you go into a public toilet and it’s clean? Good, right? And grateful that it’s not filthy.
“If you consider that the dread and frustration you’re experiencing at that moment might translate into making someone else’s day better, even in some small way, maybe that sacrifice can minimise some of your own suffering,” says Andrew Reiner, a lecturer at Towson University in the US state of Maryland, who writes for The Washington Post.
It’s one thing to try and remember this toilet analogy, but it’s easier said than done. A 2016 study published in Frontiers in Neural Circuits suggests why.
It found that the overall brain activity in mice behaving helplessly in stressful situations was considerably lower “compared to mice showing ‘resilient’ behaviour”. And this lower activity in areas of the brain is also associated with executive functioning, which includes processing and regulating emotions.
One region that was more active in helpless mice was the locus coeruleus. Researchers said they believe this plays a role in “stress-induced depression”.
Putting it into perspective
Sometimes we hesitate to describe ourselves as “suffering” because this verb is generally reserved for the extremes - such as cancer victims and those left behind after a tragic death. Instead of feeling like our problems aren’t worthy of the sadness we feel for it, remembering those more extreme examples can be helpful when confronted with less profound problems.
This was the coping technique used by Reiner’s friend. Whenever she felt really stressed, she disappeared to a nearby hospital emergency waiting room.
“I just needed perspective to remember how small my problems are compared with other people,” she explained. Experts agree that perspective is an important tool in becoming more resilient.
That said, who gets to judge another person’s suffering? Isn’t it subjective to a certain degree, and relative to an individual’s own experience? Is someone really suffering less just because their life saw less extreme trauma? After surviving the Holocaust, Frankl - a psychiatrist for seven decades and a seminal figure in the existential and humanistic therapy movements - observed that suffering is, in fact, relative.
He compared it to an amount of a gas released into a tank, observing that, regardless of how little or how much gas is involved, the tank is filled “completely and evenly”. If Frankl was correct, then even small-scale suffering shouldn’t be dismissed outright: it may look like nothing to an outsider, but to someone who is hurting, it can fill all their emotional space. And it may even hold answers to the quest for greater whole-life resilience.
Take baby steps
Reiner, as a Quick Sinker, discovered he can build his resilience a bit at a time after a chance meeting:
“A few weeks ago, I stopped at a suburban town centre after work to clear my head amid the cold air and soothing strains of retail therapy. It had been a particularly challenging week, and I was overwhelmed from the stresses of living paycheque to paycheque on stagnant Bush-era wages [the first President Bush], making marriage work in the 21st century, negotiating the challenges of step-parenthood and facing the realisation I would never become the type of husband or father I admired on such family-centric television shows as Parenthood.
“For the first time, I tried to get some distance from myself and considered what I could do to pull myself out of this tailspin. ‘Learn to be more grateful’, I told myself. I turned my face skyward (seriously) and gave thanks for my family, my health, the roof over our heads, and more. In other words, I summoned all of the things I knew I should be grateful for.
“But the buoyancy of gratitude couldn’t compete with the leaden frustrations of a Quick Sinker.
“Walking with my head down, searching for answers in the scrubbed brick [pavement], I nearly knocked into a [beggar]. I gave him a dollar. ‘God bless you, brother,’ he mumbled as I walked away. His benediction must have delivered a shot of dopamine to my brain, because suddenly I surged with the ‘helper’s high’ that this neurotransmitter releases. I turned around and gave him another dollar, and as his tight face loosened, some small knot in my brain did the same thing.
“A few moments later, I opened the door to a bookstore and turned to see an older woman hobbling toward it from 20 or 25 [metres] away. I waited and held it open for her to pass through. ‘It’s nice to see that chivalry isn’t dead,” she said, smiling. My brain hummed.
“On the car ride home, I spoke with [my wife] Liz, whose frustration with me came through my smartphone for forgetting to transfer money to her for bills. My dopamine rush ceded to resentment and my shoulders sank into a familiar hunch. Then I thought about both people I had encountered a half-hour earlier. ‘Thank you for taking care of our bills,’ I said, a bit taken aback by my words. ‘It must be frustrating to have to keep asking me about money.’ Silence.
“Eventually, Liz spoke. ‘It is. Thank you for acknowledging that.’She added, ‘Who is this, and what have you done with my husband?’
“It would be disingenuous to say that, at that moment, decades of accumulated neural millstones had simply crumbled away. I hadn’t gone full-tilt Pema Chodron and found enlightenment. But an unfamiliar lightness overcame me, and my shoulders floated back up against my seat, helping me see above the tide of traffic with clearer vision than before.”