If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you've likely seen my interview series. In it, we highlight stories of people overcoming adversity, significant adversity in their lives.
Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes. We all fall on hard times at some point in life. It can be big things like cancer, physical or emotional abuse, job loss, divorce, or losing a loved one. It can be a lot of annoying little things too.
Here are a few examples – car trouble (which can be a big thing), job stress, relationship stress, your daily commute (big where I live), an annoying neighbor, and lots of things that make up the day-to-day hassles in life.
These are the “death by a thousand cuts” types of adversity that can grind at us if we let them.
We have a couple of options when faced with adversity. We can allow it to get us down and control us. Or we can take steps to control how we respond to what comes our way.
The second option is the one that helps us rise above it. I will admit. Exercising this option is sometimes harder than it should be. Learning how to move forward and get past these tough times is something all of the people referenced here learned how to do. They met and overcame every challenge. Though it may have taken some time, all kept their adversity in its proper perspective.
I'll dive into why it's so hard and offers suggestions on overcoming the adversity that comes our way.
When Trouble Comes
When difficulty comes, our first reaction (at least mine) is often one of panic. I mean, sometimes the physical takes over. The adrenaline rush often happens quickly and, by definition, spontaneously. Adrenaline is the body's hormone that spurs the flight or fight instinct. You feel it in your stomach, like a feeling of falling or something similar.
Symptoms include increased heart rate, sweating, heightened senses (fight or flight), nervousness feelings (jittery), and rapid breathing. If you're about to get hit by a car or walk off a cliff, adrenaline can save your life.
Adversity, whether from physical or life events, can lead to unwarranted fear and dread. That's the source of the problems. When we don't recognize the effect adrenaline has on us, the result can be damaging to our physical and mental health.
When adrenaline turns into fear, the body continues to produce cortisol. WebMD calls cortisol the body's stress hormone. If we continue to think fearfully about whatever adversity we face, our cortisol levels stay elevated. Over time, this can lead to anxiety, depression, and a host of other physical and emotional problems.
That's how something the body produces to protect us (adrenaline), when left unchecked, can cause us problems of our own making (fear, stress, anxiety, etc.).
Lessons from Interviews
The series began soon after I told our story of dealing with an addicted son. The outpouring of comments, questions, and encouragement prompted me to invite others to tell their stories.
I published the first interview on September 3, 2018. I interviewed Deanna, who blogs at Ms. Fiology. In the interview, she talked about how she overcame an addiction to methamphetamine. She, in turn, interviewed my wife, Cathy, and me on her blog about what it was like parenting a son who was an addict.
That set off the series. I've since interviewed men and women who've overcome incredible adversity.
Here are some of them
- Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse (one person had all)
- Ten years in prison to a successful life
- A cognitive disability (story of my pastor)
- A gambling addiction
- A debilitating sports injury
- Going from poverty to a Harvard MBA
- Getting through med school with a significant reading disability
- A learning disability
- Overcoming bullying
- Failed overseas adoption
- Depression and anxiety
- Nasty divorce
- A brother's suicide
- From attempted suicide to helping women love life
In all, I have thirty-one posts of interviews and stories about courageous individuals who have overcome significant adversity in their lives.
Here's are the top ten things from the post:
- No one gets through life without adversity.
- Isolation is the enemy.
- Anxiety and depression are real and hard to overcome
- There is still a stigma attached to mental illness.
- Drug and alcohol addiction is genuinely at epidemic proportions.
- Cognitive and learning disabilities are some of the hardest to overcome
- We can't control what happens to us, only how we respond.
- Going through difficulty helps us grow.
- It's easier to get through adversity with the support of others.
- The strength of the human spirit is incredible.
I'll summarize a few of them below.
The Role of Faith in Overcoming Adversity
For Deanna, Andrea, Bill, Cathy, and many others, God plays a huge role in dealing with adversity.
From Deanna: “When I had this vision, I got down on my knees and prayed for the first time in a long time. Nothing monumental happened, but I did throw away my drugs.” ‘
From Andrea: “You want to recognize and accept your emotions and healthily deal with them. In my situation, this meant finding faith in God and seeking His guidance.”
From Bill: At that moment, I decided to create a new personal identity away from drugs and pursue God rather than my selfish ambitions.
Several passages from Scripture guide help me in dealing with adversity.
Ecclesiastes 7: 14 – “In the day of prosperity be joyful and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that men may not find out anything that will be after him.”
Job 2: 10 – “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”
James 1: 2-3 – “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
Even if you're not a Christian and don't believe in the Bible, there are life lessons we can learn here.
Isolation and Overcoming Adversity
When we go through the junk in our lives, we often feel embarrassed. Sometimes embarrassment turns to guilt. Guilt then turns to shame. Shame often leads to isolation. Here is what I said in the ten things post:
“I've been amazed and moved by the willingness of my interviewees to tell their stories. To the person, all did it to help anyone dealing with a similar issue. One of the standard questions I ask people is something like, “What encouragement would you give others dealing with a similar issue?”
For all of them, one common denominator they shared was the feeling of being alone in their problem. Isolation kept them from getting the help they needed. Whether from embarrassment, shame, stigma, or any of a host of other reasons, they turned inward.
In most cases, the problem worsened when they did.
Fortunately, all of the people I interviewed came out of their isolation and got the help they needed. Sometimes, caring friends or family members pulled them out. Other times, they finally had enough and took steps on their own. Every one of them went through some period of isolation before getting better.
It seems to be part of the process. My wife and I experienced that dealing with our son's heroin addiction. We can completely relate to how this happens. Like others, it took years for us to talk about it and get help.
I'm so glad we finally did.”
Life Lessons from Overcoming Adversity
First, we are not entitled to go through life without adversity. No one gets through unscathed (Ecclesiastes). Job learned that in the hardest imaginable way. He persevered and came out on the other side, stronger and richly blessed by God.
The passage from James offers guidance on how to deal with adversity. Ok, I can honestly say I've never considered it pure joy when going through tough things. Here's the message. James tells us trials produce steadfastness. In other words, they can strengthen us.
Billy B. says this very well in summing up his choices in prison: “Focus on impacting the things you can control.” He could have allowed his circumstances to define who he was. He didn't. He chose to focus on his faith, on learning as much as he could about leadership and overcoming. The results of these efforts are evident in his life now. They worked.
Deanna and Andrea made similar choices. They took control of the things over which they could. Like Bill, they didn't let the circumstances dictate their destinies.
Look, I'm not saying these are easy things. I am saying we have a choice. Does it take courage? Absolutely! Does it take perseverance? Of course? Will it be tough? More than likely.
For the four of us, faith in God, hard work, perseverance, and being surrounded by a caring group of supporters helped pave the way out of our messes.
Adversity and Stress
An adrenaline rush, left unchecked, can cause unintended physical and mental consequences. These consequences bring on stress. We've already discussed what fear can do to you physically and mentally. What steps can we take to get our fear and anxiousness under control?
Let me offer a partial list.
Four Steps to Reduce Stress
- Slow down your breathing – Though this may sound like an oversimplification, it's not. Slowing down breathing lowers your heart rate. A lower heart rate tells the body it doesn't need to fight. It calms the nervousness in the stomach and can lower blood pressure.
- Healthy eating – Diet has an outsized impact on our physical and mental health. Many of us, when stressed, self-medicate with food. Food addiction is an unchecked killer in America. Food is legal. It's required to keep us alive. However, too much of a good thing causes health problems. Obesity causes heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other health problems. Rather than reducing stress, overeating increases it.
- Exercise – You knew this was coming, right? It's true. There's nothing Cathy and I do that helps us manage our stress level more than exercise. Though we do other things, our number one choice is yoga – specifically, Vinyasa Yoga. Also called power yoga, we practice in a room heated to 95 degrees and 40 percent humidity (in our studio). The heat helps with flexibility and sweating out a lot of the junk in our bodies. Vinyasa flow is a very active, intense workout. Calm breathing is a significant part of what instructors emphasize in yoga. We hear throughout the class that yoga is a breathing exercise. That breathing carries over into day-to-day life (see #1).
- Communication – Talking through things with a trusted friend, colleague, spouse, or significant other helps sort through the adversity. When you speak about it to someone else, it often sounds less intense than it was in your head. Sometimes, the person doesn't even have to say anything or try to fix the problem. The ministry of presence, just being there, is often all it takes. Holding things inside can make them worse than they are. They can build up and blow up when finally released. Talk it out with someone. It's a much healthier way to go.
The Impact of Fear in Adversity
I had a hard time writing this post. Talking about our Christian beliefs in this day and age can be risky. And I'm not trying to evangelize anyone (though if God causes you to think about your faith, I would be delighted)
I find a lot of wisdom in the Bible. When considering the three passages quoted earlier, I hope you can see the principles apply when dealing with adversity.
Whatever your method, if you let adversity turn to fear and let that fear define you, it will bring you many problems (physical, emotional, relational). And no matter our beliefs, all of us have to take action to overcome adversity.
When you read how we overcame our adversities, you see we took action. We made conscious choices about how to respond. We all engaged in some version of the four steps listed above throughout our journeys.
In closing, I'll leave you with some words of wisdom from a character in one of our favorite TV shows, Criminal Minds. It's about the behavioral analysis unit of the FBI. They investigate the worst of the worst crimes across the country. They are called in for help by the local police departments when it's outside of what they're used to investigating.
One of the things we love about the show is the nuggets of wisdom that come at the beginning and end of each episode. The team represents a close community. They support and help each other as they deal with some of the most horrific crimes you can imagine. The end of one show stands out for me.
SSA Rossi (Joe Mantegna) is leaving the hospital scene after his team rescued someone from a killer and saved their lives. His words of wisdom:
“Our scars tell us where we've been in life. They don't have to define where we're going.”
For everyone I've talked to, this saying holds. Don't let your scars define where you're going. You get to decide that for yourself.
You've heard it said many times: “anything that's not growing is dying.” I'm not sure where that originated, but I believe it to be true. Inertia will not get us through adversity. Feeling sorry for ourselves will only make it worse.
Instead, let's choose to grow from the difficulties we face. If we do, experience tells us we will come out on the other side of it stronger and better for it.