How to Lean Into the ‘Phoenix Phenomenon’ When Times Get Tough
Life often throws us for a loop—especially when we least expect it, and sometimes back to back. If you’re still recovering from the mishaps of Mercury in Retrograde, I know you feel me.
And in these challenging moments, it can be difficult to see the light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel. But trust me when I say: There is one.
Though the circumstances may not change, there is another, sometimes less-tangible, but highly impactful benefit of going through difficult times—and that’s growth.
Before you roll your eyes, hear me out.
Have you ever gone through something that shook your world so off balance that when it happened you had no idea how you’d recover? Then, several days, weeks, months, or years later you look back on that time and how far you’ve come or the lessons you’ve learned—and felt a sense of pride?
That’s called post-traumatic growth.
It’s “a process that refers to the benefits and personal transformation that come from working through a crisis or challenging time,” psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, Ph.D., tells Shine.
“When going through difficult times, there is an opportunity to use the challenge as a catalyst to develop a deeper sense of self and purpose, a greater appreciation for life and loved ones, and an increased capacity for altruism, empathy and desire to act for the greater good,” Mirgain explains.
This concept is what Mirgain has coined as the Phoenix Phenomenon. And, similar to the mythical tale of the phoenix rising from the ashes, you too can come out of life’s toughest times stronger, smarter, and more resilient than before.
So, how do we tap into our inner phoenix? It begins with knowing that although a circumstance may be out of your hands, you still have a choice in how you respond to it.
Here's what Mirgain recommends:
Actively choose to be kind to yourself.
After a difficult life event, it’s human if your mind’s default mode is rumination, self-blame, or worry.
Allowing yourself the space for post-traumatic growth begins with noticing—and turning down—that critical voice in your head. Negative thoughts or emotions toward ourselves can easily turn a setback into a catastrophe if they go unchecked. It’s key to actively choose to be kind to yourself.
“During difficult times, remember to talk kindly to yourself, offering care and concern as you would a loved one going through a similar challenge,” Mirgain says.
Simple self-care behaviors—like getting enough sleep, eating nutritious food, giving yourself a gentle hug, spending time with loved ones, and exercising—can go a long way.
“All of these little things can make a difference knowing you have your own back, no matter the circumstance you are going through,” Mirgain says.
Acknowledge the situation—then take steps forward.
Resilience doesn’t mean blind optimism—it’s important to be realistic and acknowledge the challenge presented to you and your feelings about it. You can do that without getting lost in the moment.
“You can get out of your own head and back into your life by taking regular action towards building meaning and purpose out of your experience,” Mirgain says.
Whether it’s talking to someone or meeting the challenge head-on through crisis management, it’s essential to focus on the tiny steps you can take to grow through what you’re going through.
“By having the willingness to grow into a new way of being, you can take regular small daily actions to construct your life in a way that feels more authentic and true,” she says. “It is often during the most challenging of times where there is the greatest opportunity to redefine yourself and discover what you truly value and what you want your life to be about.”
Reflect on your own strength.
As overwhelming as it can feel, we are not solely our doubts, worries, and fears. Your feelings matter, but they do not define you.
When you’re going through something difficult, it can be helpful to take a step back and not only evaluate the situation but reflect on your inner strength.
“Ask yourself: How have you overcome hard times in the past?” Alicia Hodge, Psy.D., tells Shine. Although tough times feel like they may last forever, it is true that we have all lived through all of our worst days so far—it's a pretty good track record.
Writing about what you’re going through and trying to find meaning in the experience can be a great release. Take it a step further and write about what you’ve gone through and overcome in the past to remind yourself of just how capable you are.
“In the long run, this reduces our levels of stress, increases our sense of capability, and gives us hope,” Hodge says. “This equals overall emotional health and wellness. It can be difficult to see ourselves on the other side of a challenge, but simply imagining it can give us a boost and motivation to bounce back.”
If writing isn’t your thing, try reciting self-affirming mantras like “I’ve gotten through things in the past, and will get through this now,” “I am strong and resilient,” or “This situation will not last forever—I always see it through.”
“When we engage in active positive thinking or looking for alternatives, it can train our brain to be more resilient and flexible,” Hodge says.
We are often stronger than we think, and sometimes it may take a challenge or tough situation to help unearth our fullest potential. The important thing to keep in mind is that you can always grow through what you go through—so keep going.
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