Feeling good when life tries to get you down

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published December 3, 2010

Much of my summer was a write off. With a niece getting chemotherapy, a husband undergoing emergent open heart surgery and a son getting around on crutches after having foot surgery, while still recovering from knee surgery myself, I wasn't sure in which direction to turn. I did know that I was sick of hospitals!

Life throws punches at you when you least expect them. The more difficult ones are clearly those you can't plan for or predict. They come just when you think life is going well, or unfortunately for some, when you think you just can't handle even one more piece of bad news. The question thus becomes, why do some people seem to handle stress well and others seem to fall apart when something doesn't go their way? While genetics probably plays a role in our response to life and recent studies have shown that chronic stress can lead to serious health issues, psychologists know that we ourselves play a very large role in determining how we see, and therefore respond, to external and internal stressors. In other words, while we may not have much choice over the package we are given in life, we certainly can choose how we deal with this package. If we deal with it poorly it becomes a noose around our neck. If we deal with it "all in our stride" it may not only make us stronger, but make us a better person. Sound almost too good to be true? It doesn't have to be.

Here are a few thoughts on improving how you see that glass; I far prefer to see it as half full.

Learn to like yourself and be your own best friend. Ask yourself what advice you'd give to your best friend and follow it. It is not reasonable to expect more from yourself than you would of that best friend. You may need to learn to be kinder to yourself. Take note of what you say. It guides your thinking more than you may realize. Words like "never" and "always" lead to catastrophic thinking. Words such as "should have" are punitive and not helpful. Reframe your language. Try: "I work on having my needs met" rather than "I am selfish" or "I enjoy leading and delegating" instead of "I am bossy and controlling." Let go of those things that you cannot change or control and embrace those that you can and which are important. Letting go is difficult and involves moving on. Sometimes we get stuck or don't want to move on and it may feel impossible. You may be surprised at just how liberating it is to put the things you cannot change "away". Anger needlessly takes a toll on you and on your relationships with others. Be in the moment. Focus on what is important right now, today, and don't get overwhelmed by the 'what ifs' of tomorrow. We all can imagine the worst-case scenario but it rarely comes to fruition and worrying about it won't help. No matter how much you worry before it happens, it won't change the outcome. If something won't really matter in three months or three years, it might not really matter now. "Don't sweat the small stuff." If it is not a 10 out of a 10 in importance, don't make a big deal of it. Plan for the future by being as healthy as you can be today. Find ways to increase your physical and emotional well-being. Exercise is one of the best anti-depressants available. Spend time talking with people who are important to you and share a good laugh. If you are not happy in your relationship, get help today. If you put your life on the back burner for when the children grow up, are out of the house, when you have saved more money or you retire, you may discover that when you are ready to focus on these important relationships, they no longer exist. Recognize that life will throw you curve balls. No matter how diligently you plan, something will intervene. Take a deep breath and step away long enough to ask if it is truly a catastrophe or just feels like one. How you see an event will determine how you respond. Reframe a disaster into a challenge and you might be more able to find a solution. Lower your level of stress. See where your stress comes from and learn how to modify it. There are many effective techniques for preventing, reducing and eliminating stress. Take control over your life whenever you can. If you feel helpless, you may find yourself feeling depressed. If you are having difficulties with eating and sleeping, feel little or no enjoyment in life or relations or simply feel that you have no control make sure you seek professional help. Short term solution focused therapy when indicated is quite effective.

A positive attitude strengthens you and those around you. Be appreciative for what you have rather than envious of what is missing. We all know people who have little yet always have a smile on their face. Lower your expectations of others and be grateful for anything and everything others do. If you look for the positive in people you will find it and you will actually be happier. If you look for the negative, sadly you will find this too and be less happy. In other words, it's simple: You determine how you experience the world. Wouldn't you too prefer the glass to be half full?