Learning to deal with crises: What makes us strong?

Text and Illustrations Susanne Gold

Soul healing as a research subject and business model

Professional and private setbacks are part of life. The art is to deal with them psychologically. Mental resilience is being researched by scientists from a wide range of disciplines. The term itself is currently experiencing an almost inflationary use and is establishing an entire market. Consultants everywhere are offering resilience training, and guidebooks, podcasts and video series have sprung up. It sounds as if one can easily acquire resilience and as if one is then equipped to cope with any crisis. The very assumption that one can be trained against mental pain and personal crises creates stress in some people: because it implies the assumption that one only has to try hard enough to be cheerful all the time.

Can psychological resilience be learned?

Anyone who deals with the topic inevitably comes up against the questions of whether there is a “normal mental state” at all and what “resilience” means in itself. Originally, the term comes from material research and describes the property of elastic material to always return to its original form. In a figurative sense, this would mean that a resilient person should always return to what he or she was before after a crisis, to regain his or her normal state. Isn’t it precisely our experiences that help us to develop, that shape us and that ultimately make us who we are? There is no such thing as a “normal mental state” – only phases of it. With every crisis we enter a new phase. Researchers agree on one thing: it is precisely the difficult experiences that we use to develop our resilience. This means that a certain amount of stress and strain is necessary to learn how to deal with the defeats in life. And this is true from childhood onwards. This knowledge could be especially salutary for parents who desperately try to keep every defeat and disappointment away from their children.

What is the “mental normal state”?

Despite all efforts, research and definitions – there is no universally valid formula for mental resilience: How well or how poorly individuals deal with crises, stress and setbacks depends on their respective genetics, socialisation and life circumstances.

Resilience in everyday life

Being resilient in professional life means first seeing every change as an opportunity. In many places today, meditation exercises, breathing techniques and positive self-talk are taught. But does that help? Can we improve our resilience through self-optimisation? By engaging with ourselves, we get to know our own needs better. And this very knowledge is certainly the best navigation through crises. It helps us to be mindful of ourselves, to develop self-confidence, to approach problems more confidently, to formulate goals and ultimately to actively shape our own lives. In this way, we do not become victims of our crises, but shapers of our future.

Openness to new experiences

The general willingness to deal with oneself can often arise in a crisis. So if another life crisis inevitably follows at some point, we cope with it better and better. This is the assumption of resilience researchers. So it is precisely our difficulties that make us more resistant to life’s adversities. They teach us to get involved in new things – precisely those that lie outside our previous world of life. And they teach us to grow in the face of new challenges.

Closeness and shared activities help in crises.

No resentment – no regrets

Being able to forgive yourself and others plays an important role in resilience. Blaming others will not help us in the long run. People who manage to perceive the beauty of the world despite painful experiences are considered more resilient. Such people see problems as another challenge in a world full of possibilities. They do not feel sorry for themselves, but have an eye for the beautiful, easy and enriching things in life that are always present at the same time. So people should practise keeping an eye for the beautiful even in pain.

No cure for pain!

Our resilience is strongly related to our socialisation and interpersonal experiences in childhood. Parental care, our emotional bonding skills, our social relationships, our intelligence, our ability to solve problems and the talent to regulate our affects all play together masterfully. It is about self-confidence and trust in others and also openness to advice and help. Ultimately, it is about openness to the world itself. A spiritual-religious trust that everything has a meaning is also considered by researchers to be helpful in dealing with crises. The belief in a spiritual higher being – whereby a God may be understood here as a blank space for spirituality – gives us a sense of meaning. We need meaning. Those who see meaning in life also cope with crises more easily.

Our crises – the never-ending story of our lives?
The model of researcher Carlotta Perez

No life without pain, no existence without crisis!

The model of evolutionary economist Carlotta Pérez belongs to resilience research and is also called the “Lazy Eight” because of its shape. Her theory focuses on the patterns in which crises repeatedly occur and, moreover, what triggers crises. We know that the lazy eight stands for infinity. The theory of the cyclical “Great Surges of Development”, asserts that crises, and thus all the central phases associated with them, recur infinitely. In my illustration at the top right we find the Chinese character for crisis. This is composed of the two characters for ‘danger’ on the one hand and that for ‘possibility’ on the other. That is exactly what crises are – a turning point, which is usually perceived as problematic and requires us to make a decision. This brings stress with it and our previous existence is in danger – but at the same time it offers a world full of new possibilities. We can intervene and change something or wait until others or fate decide for us. It is quite possible that it is precisely our crises that write the history of our lives. Crises are the negative version of happiness – often we only find happiness through them. In our fairy tales, too, the protagonists are always looking for solutions to find their way out of their crises, and happiness usually beckons them in the end. Perez’s illustrated model shows that whoever or whatever finds a solution out of the crisis or after the crisis enters the phase of innovation. According to the motto: much was learned during the crisis, afterwards we tread new paths!

Going my way: new paths after the crisis

After a crisis, a phase of new ways and techniques begins. At this time, the human mindset becomes truly significant. For example, those who were able to engage with the digital world during the COVID pandemic came through the crisis better than those who remained closed to digital technologies. Optimally, a crisis increases the resilience of a system and opens up new opportunities for us.

Expansion – when we have learned something new, we use it willingly and often

The skills learned and insights gained after a crisis not only provide a new, individual orientation – they can also, if they have proved successful, spread quickly within society. This is especially true for inventions and the use of new technologies. One example is artificial intelligence. It helps us out of the confusion of the barely manageable data flood of our time and forms the business basis of many young companies and start-ups. However, the wide and rapid spread of new innovations is once again making the world confusing and complex. If we initially no longer had an overview of the data we produce with the internet, we have now often lost track of the applications of the artificial intelligences we train with this data.

Digital, complex, global and difficult to comprehend

Complexity is something we humans find hard to bear. We simply do not have the ability to think in complex ways, according to cognitive scientist Daniel Kahnemann. Complexity puts us under stress and we try to escape this stress with very simple explanations or even blame. Kahnemann calls the exhaustion we experience in the face of complexity “ego depletion”. For example, nationalist and right-wing parties and slogans have become popular today – against the backdrop of globalisation – because they often offer simple solutions and answers to complex global challenges. They reduce the confusion that comes with complexity. The phase of confusion (top left in the illustration) is characterised by anger, confusion, headlessness, chaos and panic. This phase – who would be surprised – leads once again to a crisis, which in turn forces a new start. And already the crisis model becomes infinite. According to the researcher and inventor of this model, this applies not only to people, but to every existing system in our world.

And now? Resilience training – yes or no?

A certain and learnable optimism certainly helps to cope with crises. But – we do not have control over our resilience. Even pronounced inner strength does not protect us from emotional pain! The four noble truths of Buddhism already assumed that pain is part of life. Crises are therefore not a phenomenon of our time. We may be able to learn to deal with the pain we experience in crises differently, but we cannot avoid it. Our vulnerability is our basic condition. It makes us emphatic. Only those who know pain will empathise with it in others. Empathy – that is what our whole social existence is about – it dictates how we live, who and what we are. Consequently, in every crisis and in every pain there is also the possibility of getting closer to ourselves and to other people. The crises of our lives are both danger and possibility: they strengthen or destroy us!

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