Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Why Do Some People Cope Better Than Others?

April 13, 2009

What do you do when the rug is jerked out from under you? Why do some people land on their feet while others stay on the floor contemplating their misery? What makes the difference in how people react to misfortune?

Behavioral health specialists Jeanne Schaefer and psychologist Rudolf Moos of Stanford Medical Center have identified four areas that affect coping with crisis:

1. The nature of a crisis event can determine how people cope.

- Severity and length. If you severely injure your back in a fall, you are going to feel worse than if you had sprained your ankle. It's worse being disabled for several months instead of several days.

- Extent of losses. The injury may cause you to lose your job, your home and force you to move to another city. That feels much worse than missing four softball games because of an ankle sprain.

- Goals are blocked. The back injury means you must give up your dream of a being a professional football player. You flounder around trying to figure out what else to do.

- Suddenness of crisis. Instead of a rug being jerked from under you, suppose you've been suffering from back pain for several months. You've had time to figure things out to work around your back problem.

- Whether loss is shared or not. Misery really does like company. It feels better when eight people are jerked off the rug versus being the only one.

2. Personal qualities help during a crisis.

- Religious and philosophical commitment. Falling flat on the floor isn't so bad when you figure out that God didn't pull the rug. Perhaps you realize that there is unexpected growth and meaning that come from trials and adversity. You figure that life isn't always fair and you stop expecting it to be.

- Self-confidence. You've had other rugs jerked out from under you in the past and you've always figured out how to manage. Maybe the fall wasn't as bad in the past but you have the feeling you can get off the deck and get going again.

- A willingness to seek help. Since you've been down before, you've learned how important it is to call for help right away. You let other people take over rather than trying to get up on your own and taking another tumble.

3. Social support helps during a crisis.

- Being soothed and comforted. Within a day of the fall, you have many visitors, phone calls and cards. Your companion is at your side in the hospital stroking your head and reassuring you will be OK. Your best friend drops everything and comes by. An associate who had a similar fall lives by himself, has few friends and his parents live four states away. He didn't get back on his feet nearly as well or as quickly as you did.

- Having a sounding board. You talk through your grief, your worries and your fears with family and friends. It feels good to have someone listen to you.

- Getting practical advice. You ask questions and exchange ideas on how to get by. Your friend gives you important advice on where to go for rehabilitation and what he did when he had the rug pulled out from under him. He doesn't minimize the problems and helps you become aware of issues you'll need to deal with.

- Having a loving family. Your family shows you love and concern. They are there for you. You and your spouse have had a happy marriage and you have supported your mate after a fall of her own. Another friend and his wife had serious marriage problems. When he had a rug jerked from under him, she wasn't very sympathetic.

- Having new sources of support. You have joined a self-help group for victims of rug jerkers. They truly understand, are quite helpful and give good advice.

4. The way people perceive and attack problems makes a difference.

- Gathering information. You are hungry to know everything about rug falls and coping with being on the floor. You read and ask questions to understand what had happened. You get ideas on what to do. This gives you a sense of control, competence and mastery over the new situation. Finding yourself on the floor isn't quite so scary.

- Redefining the problem. You figure out that being on the floor isn't such a bad place to be. You see things from floor level that help you decide to do things differently when you get on your feet again. You decide to be more loving to your family because you can never tell when a rug might be jerked again.

- Taking responsibility. If you should have foreseen the rug being jerked from under you, take responsibility and learn from it. Seeing it as a one-time event with a specific cause helps. It doesn’t help to think of yourself as having a deep-seated character flaw or being prone to pratfalls. Nor do you lie there brooding and angry, thinking you don't deserve to be down there in the first place.

- Gaining or regaining emotional control. Your friend is lying there angry, confused, scared, worried and depressed. He doesn't know what to do next. You have enough emotional control to think your way through the difficulty. You know life can be good again.