Seeking the silver lining in a volcanic ash cloud

April 21, 2010

Rachel AndrewDr Rachel Andrew is a clinical psychologist working for the NHS in Lancashire. The opinions expressed are her own. –

I spoke to Sophie, a good friend of mine, on Wednesday.

She is currently stranded in Majorca, Spain, as a consequence of the volcanic ash from Iceland. When I asked her how she was feeling about her situation she replied, “I’m feeling great.”

Her response was in sharp contrast to the usual reports of those stranded with their feelings of worry, fear, frustration and resentment.

We all have friends who seem happy and confident in challenging situations and the difference in attitude is about the way they think. The way we cognitively process our circumstances plays a huge part in the way we feel about them, and how we then cope. This process can be broken down into different parts.

First, like Sophie, those viewing this situation optimistically will naturally highlight the positive consequences of it, “I’ve got an extra week of sun, wine and good food”, while minimising the downside, “I might have to do some catching up at work but it shouldn’t be that much.”

For some, this will be harder than others as there is a complex cost/ benefit analysis that we all make when assessing an unexpected situation. But thinking about the benefits of being stranded helps us cope.

Second, focussing on what we can control within a situation that we seemingly have no control over also assists. In trying to book new flights or make their own way home those stranded are helping themselves to feel more powerful. When we think about how we still have power to change our situation, we feel more in control.

In addition though, accepting when we have done all we can do and can do no more can bring feelings of relief. Lastly, people are meaning-makers. Those that can adapt and change in difficult situations often create positive meanings about them.

These people often think, “What has this situation taught me?” and “How can I use what I have learnt from this to benefit me positively in future?”

We can learn a lot from those who are naturally upbeat, and by using their coping mechanisms, we can all learn to feel calmer, confident and happier in challenging times.

In a nutshell, as Sophie would think, “Things could have been better, but they could also be a whole lot worse.”

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I like it! Glad to see not all clinical psychologists see things in the same way.
The post yesterday by Prof. Robert Bor on the same subject was frankly depressing (I didn’t realize human nature had sunk so low).
Thanks Rachel for putting the optimistic point of view.

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