Recovering from a setback

September 7, 2007

From the Editor

At a recent medical convention, a doctor in her mid-40s came over to me and broke down crying. Fury and despair flashed in her eyes.

She had lost her hospital privileges for what she claimed was retaliation over reporting a surgeon who appeared inebriated during some procedures. Her former colleagues stopped speaking to her. Now she was practicing part time in another state and said she had lost her income, friends, and respect.

I can't verify what actually happened. What struck me was that the event had occurred six years ago. This physician's emotions and reactions were as powerful and as top-of-mind as if it had happened last week. She was still devastated, and her life seemed to be moving into a downward spiral.

Admittedly, these stories are very different. Life challenges vary, and one can't equate a setback with a profound tragedy, such as the death of a child, or other event that shatters your entire framework of meaning. Nonetheless, some people recover and forge ahead after a major blow, while others become defeated and bitter. The difference is resilience, the ability to recover from disappointments and setbacks.

Research shows that the key traits leading to resilience are optimism-the innate belief that most things will ultimately turn out well, belief that your own actions-not chance and fate-are mostly responsible for determining your life course, and confidence that you can master any tough situation. People possess these traits to different degrees, based on what they bring from their own background and innate nature.

Another factor may be a sense of meaning and purpose. In one of the most famous books on finding purpose in life, Viktor Frankl, in Man's Search for Meaning, described being a concentration camp inmate during World War II. He wondered why some prisoners kept their spirits intact while others gave up. He concluded that hope and belief in a greater meaning-whether it comes from your family life, your religion, or your own goals-played a large role.

If you've suffered a setback, some tactics can help you start to recover. Take initiative to create options for yourself. Seek a larger meaning or an important goal for your life. Find support among friends, family, other physicians, or professional counselors. Recognize that you do have some control over which thoughts you devote time to: don't keep replaying negative scenarios. Focus on visions that give you hope and encouragement.

Those tactics may not vanquish your misery, but for periods of time you can divert and engage yourself and create some positive experiences. Keep in mind that there's more than one way to live a happy life. The route you end up with may not be the one you originally planned, but it can still bring mental, monetary, and spiritual rewards.