From resistance to resilience

In her new column, Korn Ferry Institute's Rengin Firat offers three strategies to thrive amidst the recent tragedies across the globe.

By: Rengin Firat, Korn Ferry Institute

A potential recession, large-scale layoffs, mass shootings and ongoing wars all seem to be pulling us into a boxing ring where a heavyweight opponent is punching us non-stop. And for some of us, a myriad of our identities, backgrounds and experiences have strapped additional weights on our arms and legs during this already unfair match.

Think of a first-generation professional and new parent with no intergenerational wealth who just got laid off. Or the only transgender person in a workplace where there is no show of support or acknowledgment after the recent shooting at Club Q, a LGBTQIA+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When life keeps throwing these punches at us, instead of throwing in the towel, how do we emerge as the challenger?

Trauma is common. In the United States, about 60% of men and 50% of women experience trauma at least once in their lives, according to recent studies. Though less common, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops in 6% of all US adults, with women being more than twice as likely to have PTSD than men. PTSD occurs among people who've experienced trauma and have long-lasting and severe symptoms like flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, or avoiding triggers that might bring back the trauma.

Experiencing tragedy impacts our bodies and our brains. Research shows that exposure to trauma impairs the functioning of the stress, memory and social cognition regions of our brains, overloading our stress mechanisms, making us more reactive to stress and causing lapses in our memory. However, our brains are plastic, and these effects are reversible with the right interventions. Although our first resource should be a mental health professional when working through trauma and other issues, scientific evidence also suggests we can use several strategies in our daily lives to help us cope with negative life events. Here, we focus on three research-based actions that can help you thrive amidst life’s calamities.

3 strategies for employees to thrive in the face of tragedy

1. Square off against your opponent.

When things hit hard, under the weight of a whirlpool of emotions that may range from sadness to confusion to anger, it might be comforting to withdraw and avoid our feelings that cause us great discomfort. Although we should be patient and take a moment to ourselves, it is crucial to eventually stand off against our opponent and face our feelings. According to the cognitive models of trauma, the way we process a tragic event can be almost as important as the severity of the trauma in influencing how long the negative effects persist. For example, while going through a similar traumatic experience, some people might recover relatively fast (in a few weeks or months) while others experience long-lasting negative effects.

Research shows that active coping strategies, such as intentionally focusing on problems and positive reinterpretation of events, might be key differentiators in who not only adopts to trauma, but also thrives through it. Passive coping strategies like avoidance, rumination, denial, social isolation or substance use often cause bigger harm. In fact, evidence shows that active and instrumental coping through re-appraisal, focusing on problems, positive evaluations and acceptance give way to positive self-growth after trauma, also known as “adversarial growth.” So, while it is important to give ourselves some time and space, sooner or later, we need to square off against our opponent fearlessly. 

2. Stand up and counterpunch.

Foucault once said, “Where there is power, there is resistance.”  Agency—our basic mental capacity to intentionally influence and transform ourselves and our surroundings—provides a unique resource for not only surviving, but also thriving in the face of tragedy. People are not mere onlookers to their own lives. Through agency, we become proactive and self-reflective influencers who act on our environment.

Agency gives us the power to push back and challenge the negative events and perceptions surrounding us. Research shows that when people exert their agency by resisting the stigma and discrimination they face, they experience the positive effects of their courageous acts—both by the possibly changing someone else’s negative judgments and by boosting their own empowerment and self-esteem. Moreover, brain imaging research suggests that when members of marginalized groups tackle distress with an attitude of self-empowerment, their brains might more effectively recognize and act on these hardships. When weighed down by all the adversities of life, stand up and counterpunch.

3. Have someone in your corner.

Having a support system that will empower and elevate you through challenging times is almost as important as exerting your own agency against difficulties. Social support not only improves mental health by reducing stress, but also leads to better physical well-being and even increased life expectancy. This is because social support interacts with the hormone oxytocin, which in turn down-regulates the stress reactivity in our brains and bodies. And research also suggests, the quality of social support we receive might be more important than the number of relationships we have. So, while maintaining a diverse range of friendships is still important, we should also pay close attention to the nature of these relationships.

Whether seeking or showing support, it is very important to take an affirmative approach that celebrates and endorses the strengths and resilience of those receiving support. American Psychological Association, for example, updated their guidelines for psychologists working with sexual minority persons to highlight the importance of recognizing the diversity within LGBTQIA+ identities, including the intersectionality of different backgrounds (like immigration status, age, race and disability), and sources of pride and power. So, in order to turn your resistance into resilience, have people in your corner who can support, empower and be proud with you.

If you are going through a life-challenging hardship or misfortune, know that you are not alone. If you are feeling stuck, stressed out or burned out, know that you are not weak. Acknowledging the sources of your strength and pride is the first step towards exercising your agency. Once you realize your power, and recognize the people in your corner, you can cut those weights free and start dancing in the ring.

If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally, or has concerns about their mental health, there are ways to get help. Use these resources to find help for you, a friend, or a family member. For LGBTQIA+ resources, please click here.