Financial Crisis, Job and Economic Uncertainty:
Preparing to be Hardy in Hard Times
Economic uncertainty and possible adverse job changes create mounting stressors that can add up to continuous strain.
Under chronic conditions of strain physical and mental resources are at risk of becoming depleted to the point of breakdown in one (or any combination of) the following systems.
- Physical illness—especially heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, cancer
- Mental dysfunction—especially trouble concentrating, anxiety, depression
- Behavioral disruption—especially temper loss, “addictions of escape” (pornography, internet overuse, drugs, alcohol, marital difficulties)
- Spiritual struggle—especially doubts in faith, loss of meaning, loss of vision and hope
The good news amidst uncertainty is that psychological researchers studying people who did not reach breakdown in chaotic economic times have identified a group of stress-buffering factors that lead to hardiness (Maddi, 1987). What’s more, hardiness can be learned and strengthened through training.
Key Features of Psychological Hardiness
The keys to psychological survival through hardiness in hard times lie, psychological researchers found, in the development and maintenance of three core mental attitudes. These are:
- Commitment—The decision to do everything one can to face the situation squarely in search of a way through it. This includes drawing on the support of family, friends, and advisors instead of avoiding people in shame because of changes in financial or job status. It also involves personal choice not to lapse into escapism through venues of alcohol, drugs, excessive computer time, or pornography.
- Control — This attitude places emphasis on healthy control, which begins with the active, pragmatic acceptance that not every factor can be controlled. From there, this attitude involves “thinking outside the box” (with help from others) to reconstruct one’s situation in such a way that factors that can be changed come to the fore, then actively doing whatever is necessary to take control of these and bring about change.
- Challenge—The hallmark of this attitude is recasting obstacles as challenges that can be dealt with, rather than as threats to be avoided. Practically speaking, this means being willing to try out solutions to elements of the problem, and to treat both solutions that do work and those that don’t as learning opportunities, rather than as personal failures.
Summary of Hardiness Training
The psychological researchers who first identified hardiness amidst economic and employment chaos have established the Hardiness Institute (www.hardinessinstitute.com) to help people assess the strength of their hardiness, then learn, on-line, to build up that strength (Maddi, 2002).
The crux of hardiness is the ability to reconstruct seemingly insurmountable stressors so that each stressor becomes a challenge to be met rather than a threat to be avoided.
Hardiness training teaches one to “think outside the box” about stressful situations. This requires commitment to face the stressor head-on (often best done with at least one other person—friend, colleague, clergy, or counselor).
With the commitment to face stressors head-on, intuitive knowledge (defined loosely as “knowing without knowing how you know”) yields a broader view of the stressor, and with that broader view, possible solutions.
People under strain may get stuck on the apparent insurmountable nature of what they face. If such a “stall” occurs, hardiness training teaches ways to examine oneself for blocking emotions (fear, sadness at loss, anger), then to release those emotions, so as to reduce the sense of threat and turn the stressor into a challenge.
When viewed as a challenge, some aspects of the stressor may not be changeable (e.g., one is going to be laid off). Hardiness training then focuses on healthy control. Healthy control involves active acceptance (not passive resignation) of those aspects of a situation that cannot be changed, together with a search for what can be changed in the situation (e.g., one will lose one’s job, but this is an opportunity to retrain for a new career).
Two Important Caveats
FIRST CAVEAT: Knowledge of the components of hardiness training will not, in and of itself, create nor strengthen hardiness. The Hardiness Institute offers on-line courses to train in earnest.
SECOND CAVEAT: Much hardiness training occurs in team or group settings. New alternatives thus are often generated by two (or more) heads, not just one. There is wisdom, not shame, in getting input from trusted sources, or from a professional.
Preparation for Hardiness Training (Overview)
In this section is an overview of things to consider in laying a foundation for psychological hardiness. One should prepare for the on-line training in hardiness offered by the Hardiness Institute by “warming up” (akin to stretches and warm-ups before an athletic event).
“Remember to breathe”—As simple as this sounds, when under stress we hold our breaths without realizing it! Purposely take three deep breaths at least once every hour.
Stretch—Tightness in key areas of the body that unconsciously tense up under stress create a sense of being “backed in a corner” by the stressor. Reverse this by mindfully stretching. (Note: If you have persistent pain in any area of your body talk to your physician before doing any stretching.) The Mayo Clinic offers information about why stretching is important and a slide show of healthy stretches for different body parts.
Go to Your Heart—A lot has been learned about the role the heart plays in generating mental health. Utilizing the power of your heart to influence your brain involves training using simple, straightforward exercises to help you generate sincere feelings of appreciation (stress and threat feelings cannot be sustained when appreciation is generated!), then learn to “go to neutral” when stress is encountered, in order to get unstuck from the threat element of the stressor. These exercises are described on the Go to Your Heart page on this website.
Diet and Exercise—You can’t be hardy in a sluggish body that is experiencing the temporary escape of a “food hangover.” Talk to your physician or an Antioch therapist about how to best work on these items.
Remember, in any stressful situation, to be able to “think outside the box,” avoid getting fused with your thoughts and emotions. Your thoughts and feelings are but one way of looking at the situation! You are the thinker, not the thought; the feeler, not the feeling.
Do mental exercises that broaden perspective to the bigger picture. For example, think about what you would want friends to say 5-10 years from now abut how you weathered this stress? What values do you want to be remembered as having shown in your response to adversity?
Don’t “shoot your friends,” and don’t be a “dead lone ranger.” Two (or more) heads are better than even the best single perspective when one is under stress. Avoid isolating yourself or (worse) driving people away because you feel badly about life.
Make commitments to yourself and one other person to deal accountably and honestly with perspective-killers and relationship-killers. These are escapes that may provide some initial soothing, but, if overused can hamper your ability to think broadly, and/or put a damper on vital relationships with your support people. These escapes range from harmless (e.g., watching The History Channel) to the potentially harmful (e.g., pornography-viewing).
Spiritual Preparations for Hardiness
Spiritual preparation to become hardier involves thinking about meaning in our lives. For any of us to make sense of the events in our lives we must have a personal framework of meaning, of a larger context in life. The hardy attitude of challenge (seeing stressors as challenges, not threats), in particular, must be based upon belief in some meaningful scheme of things in life.
The 15 questions on our Spiritual Preparation for Hardiness page can be used to guide your personal inventory of spiritual foundations. They includes questions such as: “What do I worship?” (everyone worships—is in awe of—something, as measured by how much time is spent thinking about that thing) and, “Am I willing to acknowledge the current hardship in my life as a ‘tutor’ in how to look at life more deeply and meaningfully?”
You will, as you learn hardiness, look back on this seemingly overwhelming time of hardship with new perspective. Might it be that this initially fearsome set of unwanted circumstances could, after all, be the catalyst for you to live with more substance and meaning in life?
Steven A. Hamon, Ph.D.
Maddi, Salvatore R. (1987). Hardiness training at Illinois Bell Telephone. Dr. Joseph P. Opatz (Ed.) Health Promotion Evaluation. (pp. 101-115). National Wellness Institute: Stevens Point, WI.
Maddi, Salvatore R. (2002). The story of hardiness: Twenty years of theorizing, research, and practice. Consulting Psychology Journal, Vol. 54, pp 173-175.