What Nietzche said more than 100 years ago is true: “That which does not kill us outright makes us stronger.” Those of us working in drug and alcohol treatment know that this statement is so very true.
I hear clients say things like, “I never thought I’d be able to stop using heroin or alcohol, but now I realize that I’m stronger and happier than I’ve ever been. Now I know I can take anything life throws at me.”
A 2010 study found that difficult experiences often create resilience, shaping how people handle the next challenge in their lives. So, experiencing some trauma doesn’t mean we have to feel bad the rest of our lives. Instead, we can find courage, strength and wisdom in how we overcame the pain. Researchers call this “post-traumatic growth.”
A more recent study suggests that the benefits are even greater than that. In fact, experiencing misfortune can not only help us cope with negative situations, but also help us appreciate the positive ones, possibly increasing our overall satisfaction with life. Researchers from the study stated, “People who have overcome more adversity in the past are better at savoring life’s small pleasures, which in turn could promote greater life satisfaction.”
Researchers are quick to point out that adversity isn’t beneficial under all circumstances, and not all people who have suffered a trauma will inevitably lead more satisfying lives as a result. “Emotionally overcoming a negative event is an important prerequisite for turning adversity into appreciation.” And overcoming that event often requires a lot of time and work, possibly involving a great deal of psychological distress.
The folks at “UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Center: The Science to a Meaningful Life” created this exercise to use past adversity as a way to better enjoy the present.
- Pause. Take a few seconds to come to conscious awareness of being present and aware in this moment
- Bring to mind one moment of difficulty, pain, suffering, loss from the past. Feel into every facet of the memory—visual images of what happened, all the people you were with, any emotions you felt then or any emotions you feel now as you remember the event. Notice where you feel those emotions in your body. Notice any thoughts you have about yourself now as you remember this event.
- Shift the focus of your awareness to reflect on how you coped with the event and its aftermath. What lessons did you learn? What wisdom did you pull out of the misfortune you were in? What would you do differently now, having coped with and survived this event as you did?
- Shift the focus of your awareness again to how you feel about yourself now, noticing any sense of self-acceptance, self-appreciation, pride, or strength available to you now.
- Shift the focus of your attention once more. Notice anything in your surroundings or circumstances, right now, or anything you encounter during the rest of the day, that brings even a small acknowledgement of delight: the warmth of the sun on your face, the bitter-sweetness of a piece of chocolate, the memory of a recent conversation with a friend.
- Take 30 seconds to simply be with and appreciate the joy and pleasure of the moment; let any warm, peaceful feeling sink into your body. Savor the feeling.
- Repeat savoring this same or similar moment several times during the next six hours. The repetition will strengthen the memory of it; you are creating a resource of positivity you can draw on any time you encounter a new moment of adversity.
For those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, there has often been a long road of trauma, adversity and obstacles before becoming clean and sober. It’s good to know that these challenges can have an upside.