We had landed in Sydney, Australia just 5 nights earlier for our family adventure when I suddenly started experiencing unexpected chest pains.
Two days later, I found myself being admitted to the hospital for close to a week. Little did I know, I was about to practice building resilience.
Doctors thought that I might either have a pulmonary embolism from the long travel, or something possibly wrong with my heart.
This was not how I anticipated our vacation would turn out.
We had spent the first few days of our vacation adjusting to the massive time difference and, aside from a visit to a Koala Sanctuary and a few short hikes, we had only just begun to truly explore Australia.
We had plans to watch kangaroos playing on the beach at sunrise, to explore the Whitsundays, to snorkel the reef and to explore the rainforest.
But here I was, spending my days attached to heart monitors and undergoing test after test.
I was waiting with uncertainty to learn whether or not there was something seriously wrong with me, and also, if we would even be able to continue our long-awaited for exotic vacation.
Sometimes we expect life to go a certain way — and when nothing goes right, life throws curveballs, and we suddenly find ourselves on a completely unexpected, less desirable path, it can be a hard pill to swallow. However, staying connected to our emotions, without allowing them to consume us entirely, is one of the keys to overcoming adversity and building resilience.
Years ago, I would have been consumed by anger, disappointment and negative emotions. I would have raged and raged about the injustice, and the powerlessness of the situation to anyone who would have listened. I would have wallowed in self-pity, and held onto resistance like it was a badge of honour to be worn. I would have shouted my story to the rooftops so that others could reaffirm my indignation.
The problem, however, is that with negative emotions and negative thoughts, we create a breeding ground where negativity will flourish and multiply.
The reality of my situation was that my health status and my intended vacation plans were out of my control from the moment I stepped into that hospital. No amount of ranting or raving about how unfair the situation felt, or my powerlessness in the situation, would change anything.
I needed to follow this unexpected path wherever it was taking me, get myself out of resistance, and practice building resilience instead.
So how do we do that?
1. Let yourself feel your emotions.
In my first few days in hospital, when I would get upset after being told that I could not yet be discharged, the nurses would encourage me to look on the bright side of things, or see things in a positive light. This is valuable, but it is a bit too early in the process to do this immediately. Pretending that we are fine when we are not is not beneficial.
Not addressing emotions that are popping up is like shoving homework into a backpack. At some point, the backpack gets so full that it explodes. It is important to leave space to feel our emotions, especially our negative emotions, as we go through challenging situations. I got in touch with some people at home to help me process my thoughts and feelings about what was happening. I made space for my “what ifs” and my fears. And I let myself have a good hard sob when I needed it.
2. Process your emotions in manageable chunks.
When our negative emotions reach a certain intensity, there is a point where they may be doing us more harm than good. When you feel yourself cresting towards a peak that is becoming too much to manage, use some calming strategies to lower the intensity of your emotions for a period of time before opening up the Pandora’s box once again.
3. Keep the incident in perspective.
If this step is done too quickly, you run the risk of minimizing the challenges that you are experiencing. However, if you are making space for your emotions, it is also important to keep the incident in perspective and to not catastrophize.
Although I was quite disappointed and upset to find myself in hospital instead of touring Australia, my health and well-being are clearly far more valuable than snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef. Our brains have a negativity bias which draws our attention to negative events. As such, it is particularly important to monitor when our brains are getting sucked into focusing solely on negative aspects of a situation, and to keep a more balanced view of both the positive and negative aspects
In my situation, this included being grateful that we had flown on points (and hence, had not spent $7,000 on flights) and that I was in a country that had a good medical system and where I spoke the language.
Being mindful of the positive aspects of a challenging situation does not take away the challenging aspects, but it can keep us from focusing solely on the negative and following this into a downward spiral.
4. Let go of that which you cannot control.
As mentioned earlier, resistance will not change the outcome of challenging situations. It will simply leave you more miserable. Challenge yourself to work to accept the current moment as it is. This will not come immediately. Allowing yourself to feel your negative emotions about a situation is a necessary prerequisite to acceptance. Meditation and a regular mindfulness practice can help you get there.
As Donald Hebb said, “neurons that wire together fire together”. The more we rewire our brains by following these steps during challenging situations, the more the firing of these behavioural response patterns will become increasingly automatic, replacing old patterns which may be leaving you in a less resilient state.
The above steps can be used to face smaller challenges, such as getting stuck in traffic, or forgetting your wallet at home, just as much as they can be used for bigger life challenges. The more you practice with smaller events, the more you will be able to shift through these steps more quickly and seamlessly during more difficult events
We are now safely back home in Canada, disappointed that our trip did not work out as planned, but also grateful that I was discharged in perfect health.
We also still managed to see the kangaroos playing on the beach at sunrise.
If you liked this post, you might also like: