Better or bitter? How does a tough experience change you?

Photo by Xan Griffin on Unsplash

We all have experiences, personal or professional, that we qualify in common language as “bad”. Missing a promotion, getting a divorce, losing someone, going through a break up, failing to deliver something. As with almost anything that happens in our life, the key is our perception. An event per se can be fully neutral, but we may interpret it as negatively oriented toward us (perception).

Whenever we undergo highly stressful events, we resort to coping mechanisms, which are not a long term solution, but help us overcome the situation by reducing the stress level. The problem is the mechanisms we adapt tend to become recurrent (a pattern). If they are maladaptive (negative), which in reality are increasing the stress level, answering the question in the title is easy: we become bitter.

Here are some common maladaptive coping mechanisms:

  • Escaping reality – probably the most popular one, a form of “self-imposed social isolation” (sounds familiar doesn’t it?) in which the person is doing something solitary for hours / days / months. It can be movie binging – watching a whole season in one go, playing computer games for endless hours or even excessive reading. Because this type of mechanism is not harmful per se, it often gets excused, until you observe the amount of time it gets allocated. “I’m just watching a movie. Just playing a game. I love reading a lot”. For countless hours, while life gets by. Sleep is reduced (one of the most important self-regulating mechanisms of our body), you feel tired and distance yourself from people.
  • Numbing – “Wish I wouldn’t feel this anymore” – translates usually to substance abuse (drinking, drugs, excessive smoking), but in lighter cases can be also an excess of food (dysfunctional eating). This excess takes a toll on our intellectual abilities or physical condition, which can in turn affect other aspects of our life. Once you get numbed, you simply can’t perform intellectually at the same level. So what do some people do? Go in the other extreme direction: let’s get an energy drink now! Just think about what it means for the brain to try to take it from reverse, straight into the fifth gear… Borderline personalities understand this best.
  • Addictions or compulsive behaviour (gambling, unsafe sex, small crimes that create an adrenaline rush) – “I have to do this now” – usually with major consequences that push you forward down the spiral.
  • Physical self-harm – this is a serious maladaptive behaviour and I recommend seeing a specialised therapist if you know someone going through this: self-inflicting cutting, bruising certain BDSM practices (ex: wax play) and many others.

It doesn’t sound good, right? So how do you turn the tables around and become better instead? By using positive coping mechanisms.

Common adaptive behaviours (the positive ones) that actually reduce the stress level:

  • Any form of active sports – swimming, running, fitness, cycling, any form of physical activity that takes you outside your usual pace, increasing your pulse. As your heartbeat and breathing increase, so those the oxygen level in your blood and brain. When the brain gets more oxygen, its analysis capabilities increase, removing the “fog”.
  • Relaxation – ranging from meditation to nature walking, massage, going to a float room. Anything that relaxes you, doesn’t affect your body negatively and is not in excess.
  • Laughter – good company is the best. Surround yourself with people that make you laugh and that you can have a good time with. If that’s not at hand, watch a comedy or go to a stand-up show. You will feel better for a while, just enough to change your perception. Laughter releases serotonin and it has an effect on the brain similar to antidepressants.
  • Get support – there are so many options, from calling a good friend that can understand you and not criticize you, to support groups and therapy.
  • Problem-solving – this is the long term approach and obviously the one that would yield the best results. It involves acknowledgement, ownership, acceptance, a desire to change and 100% action. If you practice introspection often or at least an honest retrospective of the day, it might come easier. Sometimes, a coach, a personal development trainer or a therapist can guide you on this journey.

If you find yourself on the path of getting bitter, these are the first three steps you have to take to be better:

  1. Acknowledge you are resorting to a maladaptive coping mechanism that doesn’t serve you.
  2. Stop the harmful behaviour. With the exception of advanced addictions, all other can be stopped on the spot.
  3. Pick an adaptive behaviour that works for you, get a coach if needed and if things are too hard, consider seeing a therapist. By changing your perception, you will be able to get to problem solving.

You have to be willing to make a change that will serve you well. There’s only one addiction I recommend: get addicted to getting stronger!

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