Dr. Paul on finding resilience during hard times like these

No matter how strong we are, anyone can be knocked down. Here’s how to cope so you can get back up.

I recently watched the Golden Globe Award-winning movie “Nomadland.” It’s a haunting film that highlights the challenges that many Americans faced during the economic downturn of 2008.

The main character, Fern, and her husband, Bo, worked at a drywall factory in Empire, Nevada, that was shut down due to the collapse of the construction industry. Shortly after, Bo died of cancer. Fern is set adrift with little money, no job and no place to live. She fixes up an old van to live in and hits the road.

In 2021, as I walk around Green Lake in the early morning, I see similar vans and RVs lined up on streets around the park, inhabited by men and women experiencing homelessness. The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for many adults.

I remember well the scores of adults who lost their jobs in Snohomish County during the Great Recession. Many of my patients lost their livelihoods and their homes. Some of them, like Fern, never recovered from their loss.

Most of the people Fern encounters on the road are older adults who have sustained losses — economic, social and emotional. They become nomads, moving from one RV park to another. Fern struggles to reinvent herself, put down new roots, and find a new way of making a living.

It reminded me of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” set during the Great Depression. My grandfather was unable to support his family then and became very depressed. Just as Fern is helped by fellow travelers and relatives, my mother’s family was helped by generous neighbors and extended family.

Our lives can be upended on a dime from an economic downturn, a global pandemic, a flood, a fire or an unanticipated death. What we thought was solid ground can turn into quicksand.

Trust me — no matter how strong we are, anyone can be knocked down. None of us is invincible.

What’s important is how we adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, and how we reinvent ourselves and recover our footing.

Here are some components of resilience.

Let go of the past. This is easier said than done. The loss of a spouse or a long-held job can be crushing. We can grieve our loss, feel sad and still move forward in our lives. We can feel cheated by an unwelcome change of circumstances. This anger can prevent us from finding a path forward. We have to focus on living in the present and not in the past.

Life is change. Nothing stays the same.

Don’t blame yourself. All too often, when our lives go upside down, we feel that it’s our own fault. We should have known better or been better prepared. Guess what? Even with the best-laid plans we can find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lean into your strengths. We all have strengths and weaknesses. In hard times, use your strengths to work around your limitations. Fern is a hard worker but doesn’t have any marketable skills. She might have decided to use her resources to learn new skills that might help her find a higher paying job.

Accept help from others. We are interdependent. We need each other during good and bad times. Don’t let your pride get in the way of asking for and accepting help from friends and relatives.

Be flexible. It’s helpful to have a plan A, B and C, and to be able to pivot quickly when one plan goes awry.

Believe in yourself. Looking back, you will recall times that you overcame adversity. Believing that you can find your way, despite the losses behind you and the challenges ahead, can help propel you forward.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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