Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Ten Ways We Can Grow From A Crisis

August 10, 2009

If we live long enough, we will experience the heart-wrenching cry of the soul when the unthinkable happens. The world is turned upside down.

Everything changes. Relationships are disrupted, the soul is burdened with grief. Basic values and beliefs are challenged and powerful demands are placed on people to adapt.

There are no guarantees people in crisis will cope well. Victims of these circumstances go through denial, anger, bitterness, confusion, withdrawal, anxiety, and depression. Marital problems are common. The pain and misery can be overwhelming.

The current financial meltdown and recession is a huge challenge. For some who sailed along with a dynamic economy in the ‘90s and 2000s, this is the first time they have had the underpinnings of their lives ripped away through loss of a job or income.

Even more challenging is to lose a home through foreclosure and to dig oneself out of debt or having to rethink one’s occupation and a place to live. This is a huge loss and a threat to self-confidence, identity and even hope.

What good can come from such a life crisis.

In the following commentary I use the pronoun "we" because my wife and I have faced similar challenges at different times in our lives. I say "we" because we are watching some of our children getting caught in the effects of this financial meltdown. We hurt for them and at the same time admire the personal growth that emerges from their struggles.

Here are ten life changing attitudes and skills that come from coping well with a life crisis.

1. Turning to a confidant for support. During a crisis, we learn to share our private thoughts, fears and desires with a trusted friend, relatives or spouse. By turning to others, deeper and more meaningful relationships are promoted.

2. Having better relationships with family and friends. The crisis brings out vulnerability, dependency and isolation. We have to rely on others and to engage with them in joint problem solving to meet our needs. We come to understand how important family and friends are and how important it is to communicate openly with them.

3. Forming new social networks. Persons in crisis reach out to counselors, clergy, self-help groups and other informal sources of support to learn about the predicament they are in and to find purpose and meaning in what they are going through. New friendships are made. Social support helps people feel cared about and understood.

4. Developing deeper levels of understanding. The crisis compels us to take a broader view of the world.

The old way of looking at life isn't sufficient. We are pushed and stretched into finding deeper levels of understanding and finding new ideas and meanings to help us cope. We find peace through greater spiritual understanding and faith.

5. Becoming more resilient. New circumstances force us into unfamiliar roles and with seemingly overwhelming tasks. As we measure up to new demands, we develop new self-appreciation and become self-confident. Once we have successfully dealt with the crisis, we then have a stronger capacity to take life in stride. We become more easygoing and self-confident in dealing with future obstacles in our path.

6. Gaining greater empathy, altruism and maturity. Crisis exposes us to others with similar problems. We become more sensitive to others’ needs and feelings. We learn compassion. We see the need to reach out and help others. We assume new roles and responsibilities that benefit the community and the welfare of others. We become better neighbors. We become less judgmental.

7. Realigning basic values and priorities. The crisis may cause us to question our values and rethink our goals and priorities. Life is short. The really important things become obvious. We realign our goals with a new sense of what life is all about.

8. Developing new problem-solving skills. We come to see our new situation as a challenge. We analyze our difficulties logically and taking positive steps and actions to manage the crisis. We push ourselves to understand the problem, find meaning in it and redefine the situation in a larger and more hopeful context.

9. Choosing to seek help. We seek information and resources to manage the crisis. We know we don't know enough and reach out to others for help. Seeking help is a turning point in positive coping.

10. Learning to manage and regulate emotions. Life hasn't prepared some of us for the intense tumult of emotions that accompany a life crisis. In order to cope, we learn to bring our emotions under control so we can get on with solving our problems. Emotions expressed inappropriately can harm important relationships and hinder effective problem-solving.

We can emerge from a crisis with additional coping skills, closer relationships with family and friends, new priorities, greater self-understanding and maturity and a richer appreciation of life. A life crisis can make us more resilient, tender and humble.

Life is full of inspiring stories where the indomitable human spirit shines through the most dire circumstances. When life takes the measure of us, we need to measure up. Someday, in less painful circumstances, we will acknowledge the growth that came from going through something hard.

This list was adapted from research findings of health research scientist Jeanne Schaefer and psychologist Rudolf Moos at the Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, California.