How to Survive Anything
by Dr. Ryan Denney, PhD
The basic necessities for human survival are food, water, shelter, warmth, safety and so on. If you have these basics, you can physically survive in almost any situation. But what are the basic necessities for emotional survival when life’s difficulties challenge our mental health? Here are some skills that, if well-developed, can enable us to successfully survive and even thrive in the face of any difficult life circumstance.
“The present moment is as it is, always. Can you let it be?”
Acceptance means allowing people and situations that we cannot control to be as they are without trying to fix or change them. It is accepting those things about ourselves and our life histories that we cannot change. It means allowing others to be as they are (tough as it may be) without trying to make them be different. Acceptance does not mean passively letting life flatten you like a pancake, neither does it mean never setting goals or trying to change negative situations, it means avoiding the trap of obsessing about people or situations that we have no true power over. It is healthy, peaceful surrender.
“Healing is being present in this moment.”
~Lisa Schwarz, EdD
This is the ability to remain mentally and emotionally present in the midst of difficult moments or circumstances or with people who are behaving badly or being difficult. It means being attuned to yourself (your body, thoughts, and emotions) and to those around you. It means facing rather than avoiding fears, pain, or reality. It means releasing all the things we do to numb our pain and divert our attention from our short and long-term problems. It is facing life as it is with our head up, eyes open, face-to-the-wind, fully present with all of our attention, focus and courage.
“When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from failure, disappointments, mistakes, or difficult circumstances. It means that the problems of our lives neither define nor defeat us as we reframe negative circumstances as opportunities to evolve, grow and learn important lessons about ourselves and others.It involves “using the challenge,” making it our friend, choosing to see the blessing in the pain, which is always there if we only look for it.
Tolerance of Uncertainty
“Stop hoping for a completion to anything in life.”
Uncertainty is a cold reality of being human, and emotional health is found in the ability to tolerate and graciously accept uncertainty, even considering it a teacher or friend. Would our lives be better if we could be absolutely certain about the future? Perhaps and perhaps not. It is uncertainty that teaches us to have faith in ourselves and in God, prompts lessons and creates treasures we would not have had unless we took a leap into the unknown. Life’s inherent uncertainty provides us the opportunity to develop and access our resilience, to be creative in our problems-solving, and to personally grow as we learn to live in co-operation with the challenges of our lives and develop a grateful acknowledgment that meeting challenges helps make us who we are.
“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”
There is a still, quiet place inside all of us, but few people take the time or effort to find it. Like the stillness beneath a raging ocean, this quiet place within lies deep at our core, though usually the blustery tempest of our problems, thoughts, and emotions sap our energy and attention. But the ability to become still, to be at peace with ourselves, to be fully present in the moment with alert stillness, to breath deeply into the calm of just being, this is where peace and centeredness are found. This stillness is available to us if we are only willing to stop “doing” so much and learn the art of “being.” Living within the embrace of this stillness creates a powerful love, a peaceful knowing of the truth, and a settled hopefulness that no raging life storm can shake.
“Some would like to learn to be happy grown-ups; others would prefer to magnify their misery and find someone to blame.”
~Frank Pittman, MD
It is exceedingly difficult (and scary) to take responsibility for our lives, especially if our lives are not what we hoped they would be. The bottom line is this: there are no victims. While all of us have been “victim-ized” at various times (hurt, treated poorly, judged unfairly, etc) we all have a decision to make: will we take personal responsibility for how we will respond to the events of our lives or will we crumble into victimhood blaming everyone else for our problems? No personal problem can ever be solved until we take complete personal responsibility for how we are going to respond to it, and there is absolutely no personal problem we cannot solve once we choose to fully own both the problem and the solution.
“It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all!
Let it go, let it go…”
~”Let it go” from the movie Frozen
Before Elsa ever sang her famous song into the cold night, it has long been known that the ability to release negative experiences and emotions is connected with positive mental health and increased life satisfaction. It involves the ability to let go of the anger we hold toward those who have hurt us and to release our compulsive desire for life to be fair. It is also the ability to self-forgive and let go of self-criticism, mistakes and disappointments. It means releasing shame. We must let go of the things about ourselves and our lives we cannot control or change, the things that happened in the past that should not have happened and the things that did not happen that should have.
Loving and Being Loved
“We can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
~Brene Brown, PhD
One of the main reasons we are all here is to give and receive love. A large amount of our emotional anguish usually has roots, in one way or another, in a disruption of the flow of love either to/from and others or to/from ourselves. Healthy loving means to both give love unselfishly to others and receive and accept the love others offer to us. We must let love in and project love out in a continuous flow that cleanses our souls like a fresh breeze.
“In a world filled with hate, we must still dare to hope.”
As oxygen is to physical survival, so hope is to emotional survival; without it we suffocate. Hope is a deep conviction that the future will be brighter, that circumstances can and will improved and that we have the power to make choices to improve our lives. Hope does not depend on the circumstances or the way things seem; it is an internal, deeply held core belief that as long as we are breathing and fighting there will come a better day.
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Spiritual health and mental health are often intimately linked. That is, for many people, developing a meaningful sense of spirituality leads to be more resilience, hope, peace and higher life satisfaction. This involves developing a deeply personal sense of connection with God, or that which is transcendent or divine.
We have within us everything we need to survive, even thrive, in the face of any (yes any) life problem, difficulty or trauma. The key is having the courage and willingness to embrace these mental health survival tools. But these things are not easy to do! If you get stuck, I encourage you to seek some help. I am confident you will be glad you did. Developing these skills may take a process of growth, but you can do it!
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