How to be resilient when we’re surprised by a sudden negative experience

Have you ever swallowed a bug? If you participate in outside sports of any kind, I’ll bet you have. This weekend I was taking a slow, easy run on a gorgeous trail beside the big lake that serves as our watershed, when suddenly a nasty little bug that felt enormous flew right into my mouth and glommed onto the back of my throat. I coughed and sputtered, gagged and hacked, but I could not get her free; she was too far in.

I knew what I had to do, though the thought of it made my eyes water. I had to swallow her. So I gathered up my wits, took a deep breath and swallowed. Then I did it again. And again. It seemed that no matter how many times I did it, she still wouldn’t budge. She was as loathe to go down as I was to make it happen.

Other people on the trail passing in the opposite direction glanced at me suspiciously as I alternated between coughing and swearing. Both the idea and the actual experience of swallowing a bug are very disturbing, if you want to know the truth. I felt I needed to get home immediately and gargle with disinfectant.

Unfortunately, I was three miles out on an out-and-back trail and had to go at least the same distance to get to my car. The only way back was the way I came. I had no choice but to keep running (albeit now in the direction of an eventual resolution to my problem–the bottle of water in my trunk). As I did so, given as I am to finding metaphors in my running, I started to think about the psychological bugs I’d swallowed recently—in the form of disturbing events that took me by surprise and upset my sense of calm and well-being.

Two things had happened only the week before which choked me up and disturbed me: I’d had a serious conflict with a good friend that temporarily rattled my faith in my own intuition, and then someone very dear to me had a heart attack (minor, but still…). Both events were hard to swallow and left me quite distressed.

You’ve had similar experiences, haven’t you? You’re going about your business, reaching the goals that the day has laid out for you when, without warning, something devastating stops your breath from flowing easily, and you have to figure out how to carry on before you’ve even had the chance to process what has happened. It can be a phone call about your lab results or a sudden shooting pain. Maybe it’s an email with bad news or someone serving you papers. Whatever it is, it requires you to stop where you are and change directions. You only hope you can get back to safety without further damage being done.

By the time we hit forty, we’re no longer under the illusion that life will be without its bugs – big and small. Even so, each time we receive bad news or are surprised by a negative experience, we sputter and choke before coming to terms with the fact that we now have to integrate this new foreign and unwanted disturbance into our understanding of the world.

Since we know it will happen, is there any way to make choking on bugs easier? I don’t believe there is, mainly because what makes unexpected negative experiences so shattering is that they happen suddenly–often while we’re feeling serene and stable. I do, however, believe we can improve our resilience: our bounce back-ability.

Here’s how:

1. Heal old wounds. Carrying the wounds of old trauma around with you every day is like trying to run a marathon with a broken leg. Make the needed time for and commitment to therapy that will allow you to put the past to rest so you can move forward with relative hope and wholeness.

2. Practice a healthy lifestyle. That’s right: eat well, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and minimize the general drama in your life so you have a baseline of well-being to return to when life surprises you with bad news.

3. Surround yourself with a good support system. No one manages the tough times alone, or at least no one should. Make it a priority during the good times to develop relationships that will support you in the hard times.

There’s nothing that can take the shock and horror out of troubling events, but the bugs in life don’t have to paralyze us altogether. We must find ways of integrating new and difficult information so that we can keep moving forward. What choice do we have? We may have just as many miles ahead as we’ve already run.

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