How You Overcame Past Challenges Can Help You Process Negative Experiences

How You Overcame Past Challenges Can Help You Process Negative Experiences

 Jim Windell

             If you are faced with a difficult challenge, how can you best get through it?

            In the past year, during the pandemic, literally every one of us was confronted by some of the most difficult of situations. Not only were we besieged by a virus that could kill us, but we had to deal with the way we earned a living, the loss of personal interactions, and a new sense that we had little or no control over any of this.

            For better or worse, most of us survived. Most of us adapted to a new way of life and most of us found new ways of maintaining social contacts and dealing with the necessities of daily existence. But what determined how well we survived? What characteristics helped those of us who actually thrived during the coronavirus pandemic?

            A new study helps shed some light on these questions.

            A team of researchers from the Department of Psychology and the University Hospital of Psychiatry Zurich teamed up with researchers from New York to investigate how people can strengthen their psychological resilience when facing adversity. Starting from findings of previous research showing that while a large segment of the population turns out to be resilient in times of stress and during traumatic events, others are less robust and develop stress-related illnesses. Evidence demonstrates that what some people experience as draining seems to be a source of motivation and creativity for others.

            In the study, published in Emotion, self-efficacy was found to be a key element of resilience. Birgit Kleim, professor of psychology at the University of Zurich Hospital and director of the study, says that self-efficacy is the belief that we have the ability to influence things to at least a small degree, even if some things are unchangeable. “A self-efficacious person is convinced that they can draw on their own powers to overcome difficult and challenging situations,” Kleim says. “Without believing in your own capabilities, you wouldn't take on any challenges in the first place."

           Kleim emphasizes that self-efficacious people have stronger problem-solving abilities and a higher level of persistence. They also show changes in brain activation in regions linked to emotional regulation.

           So how do self-efficacious people use this skill to be resilient in the face of a negative experience?

             For the resilience study, the researchers examined 75 people who were distressed by a negative emotional memory. Before recalling and reassessing this distressing memory, one group of subjects was instructed to vividly recall a positive event such as a beautiful experience in nature or a joyful encounter with others. The others were instructed to think of a time in which they felt they were particularly self-efficacious; that is, situations in which they were successful  -- perhaps having a successful conversation, passing a difficult exam or giving a well-received presentation.

           "Recalling a specific instance of one's own self-efficacy proved to have a far greater impact than recalling a positive event," says Kleim. Those people in the study who actively recalled their own self-efficacious behavior – even just one time – found it easier to reassess a negative situation and view it in a different light. These people who could recall times when they were successful in a difficult situation perceived the negative experience as less distressing than the subjects who were instructed to reflect on a positive memory unconnected to self-efficacy.

           The researchers suggest that this study reveals that that helping people recall self-efficacious autobiographical events can be used to help them boost personal resilience. It may be possible to strategically use memories of overcoming past challenges as a way of coping with crisis situations.

           This also applies to almost any crisis provoked by the coronavirus pandemic. For you and your clients, reflecting on how you (or they) have overcome past personal challenges can help in processing negative experiences.

             To read the original journal article, find it with this reference:

Christina Paersch, Ava Schulz, Frank H. Wilhelm, Adam D. Brown, & Birgit Kleim. Recalling autobiographical self-efficacy episodes boosts reappraisal-effects on negative emotional memories.Emotion, 2021; DOI: 10.1037/emo0000949


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