The Upside of Tough Times

toughing out the storm

Televangelist Robert Schuller once famously said, “Tough times never last, but tough people do.” Admittedly, it’s a somewhat clever turn of phrase and if you’ve actually made it through a difficult time, it certainly would make you feel proud of yourself for be so strong. For that matter, if you’ve had a particularly calm life with not many difficult times, I have to imagine it would ring very true as well.

But here’s the thing, I’ve known some very strong folks who did not make it through their tough times. And, the reality is, for some people in the world, tough times never end.

A possibly better take on tough times comes from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Even that, though, denies the reality that while a difficult time may pass, we sometimes get mentally stuck in it – if it is particularly traumatic for the person, it can even result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. With PTSD part of the person’s mind gets a bit stuck in the precipitating event. They may have disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the events. They might exhibit mental or physical distress to trauma-related cues. Also, they frequently attempt to avoid trauma-related cues and may have a heightened startle response. Not only that, but folks with PTSD are at a higher risk of suicide.

So, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger?” Well, not always.

The point I’m trying to make is that we sometimes try to oversimplify the complexity of tough times. So, I wanted to acknowledge that before I somewhat oversimplify the complexity of tough times in this article.

What equates to a tough time for one of us might not necessarily equate to a tough time for the rest of us. Life experience, the number of times you’ve survived a difficult time in your life, and a whole myriad of differing life perspectives can all greatly impact how you experience a difficult time in your life.

Secular humanism and most religions place a high value on compassion. Part of compassion comes from recognizing that what is traumatic for someone else might not be traumatic for you, and vice versa. The old adage of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” has, unfortunately, become a favorite slogan for folks who simply don’t get this. Sometimes, you just can’t.

But, sometimes you can. And that is what this blog post is about: the times we do manage to make it through the difficult times and the advantages we may find we gain from them. In part, when we recognize the reality of the upside of getting through tough times, it can make it easier to actually get through those tough times.

Traumatic events tend to force us to reexamine our beliefs and priorities. They can help us break out of habitual ways of thinking and being.

One area where that’s particularly true is with relationships. After going through a traumatic event like losing a loved one, people usually feel closer to their friends and family members. Before the trauma we tend to take for granted our friendship and kinship with those we have in our lives. After the trauma, we tend to realize how precious time is for sharing life with those who are closest to us in our lives and we make more of an effort to connect with them. And, if we are reaching out to those people during our struggles, we tend to strengthen those relationships.

So yes, traumatic events tend to force us to reexamine our beliefs and priorities, they can help us break out of habitual ways of thinking and being… and ultimately, that can also increase creativity.

That’s right, sometimes out of loss, there can be a creative gain. Of course, it’s important to say that trauma is neither essential nor sufficient for creativity. But, creativity can even become a sort of coping mechanism after a difficult experience. Some people might even find that going through tough times has forced them to question some of their assumptions about the world and how it works which can cause them to think more creatively about life in general.

And, surviving a particularly difficult event can make us feel stronger physically and mentally for having survived it. It can help teach us that we can be more adaptable than we ever were before. Psychologists actually believe that after a person survives a particularly death-defying event, their thought processes change significantly, and they begin to think of themselves as more capable of handling anything life throws at them.

Making it through difficult times also tends to make us more empathetic when others are going through difficult times. More than that, having managed our way through it, we tend to have a heightened awareness of what it takes to do so. When people are going through tough times an empathetic friend with the experience of having been in a similar situation, may be the very thing needed to get them through the difficulty as well.

Finally, the single biggest upside to getting through tough times is the knowledge that you are more than capable of getting through tough times. The next time a tough situation hits you are more likely to take the attitude of “I’ve done this before, I can do it again.”

Life definitely has its ups and downs, its tough times. And I am in no way suggesting that those tough times are a good thing –- they are not –- they are just awful. I’m just suggesting that when you find yourself in those tough times, that not only should you not let yourself end up feeling like you won’t survive, but when you do survive you should be aware that you can use the experience to create an even better life for yourself and for others.

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