Prosilience #16: Avoiding Adversity
A dozen strategies for protecting your energy by encountering fewer challenges
Life brings many forms of adversity. These include threats to our physical well-being, health problems, emotional difficulties and trauma, issues affecting loved ones, financial insecurity, and more. I usually write about how we can prepare for and deal more effectively with the range of challenges that confront us throughout our lives, but it’s important to step back periodically and look at another aspect of the picture.
Regardless of how skillful you are at recovery, the first key to successfully dealing with adversity is to reduce the level you experience in the first place. You can’t completely eliminate problems and challenges in your life—it is the nature of the world to change, and the nature of life to have ups and downs. It would also not be desirable to completely eliminate adversity—much of the joy in life is gained by doing things that contain some element of surprise and risk, which bring with them the chance of complications and the possibility of growth. However, there are many situations where people bring unwanted problems upon themselves, or make situations worse than they need to be, through their own choices and actions (or lack of action).
With that in mind, here are a dozen strategies for minimizing adversity. Some may help you avoid it entirely, others can help you keep from making a bad situation worse:
1. Focus on what you are doing
You are most vulnerable to the unexpected when you are not paying attention to your own actions and on what is going on around you. As a simple example, consider “distracted driving,” which involves operating a car while engaging in any number of activities that take attention away from the road, such as texting, emailing, talking on the phone, applying makeup, and adjusting a GPS or car stereo. While data strongly suggest that distracted driving increases the likelihood of accidents, a large percentage of drivers elects to engage in one or more of these activities on a regular basis. The same principle applies to other activities—walking down the street while looking at a portable device, thinking about an argument you just had while riding your bike in traffic…you’re much better off if your mind is in the same place you are.
2. Choose your companions
The likelihood of getting in some sort of trouble multiplies when you spend time with people who do illegal or unsafe things. There are several social influence processes at work here: We look to our peers for ideas about what is right and appropriate, and if they are engaging in risky behavior, we are more likely to do so. In addition, people in groups tend to evaluate risk differently than individuals do. Sometimes this leads the group to take much greater risks, and sometimes it leads the group to be much more cautious. Choosing to spend less time with people who are bad influences is not always easy, but it definitely has the potential to reduce the level of adversity you encounter.
3. Be realistic about risks
People don’t always estimate risks accurately. For instance, many people judge travel by plane to be much riskier than travel by car, when in fact the reverse is true. Most people tend to believe that they are more likely to experience positive outcomes and less likely to experience negative outcomes than their peers. And adolescents, in particular, tend to view themselves as invulnerable to negative outcomes which, in turn, can lead to an increased likelihood of risky behavior. The more accurately you can evaluate the true risk of the activities you engage in and avoid thinking that you are special (e.g., “I know that texting while driving is risky, but I feel like I am safe when I do it, so I don’t think I’m taking a big risk”), the more likely you are to make decisions that will reduce the incidence of potential harm.
4. Look ahead
Disruptive events such as weather emergencies, layoffs, divorces, and health problems are more likely to throw you for a loop if you didn’t see them coming. Sometimes it’s easy to ignore the information and signs of a potential problem because you would rather not think about it or because you are too busy to pay attention. However, taking the time to notice signals and trends, seek out sources of information such as weather forecasts and stock market results, get medical checkups, and pay attention to how the people around you are thinking and feeling can help you spot problems early. The information may enable you to avoid or fix a problem, or reduce its impact; but even if it doesn’t, it gives you more time to prepare yourself for an effective response and recovery.
5. Plan your exit strategy
Whenever you are entering a situation or place that is unfamiliar, it’s important to know how you will get out of there if things go wrong. Knowing where the exits are in a building or an airplane is one very practical example, but the same principle applies in other ways as well. For instance, if you are in a restaurant, can you spot at least two ways to get out if you need to? If you rode with others to a party, have you thought about how you would get home if you needed to leave early and couldn’t find them? Do you have a map of the places you’re driving in case your GPS stops working? Physical exits are important; so are psychological exits. If you need to leave a situation that’s not healthy for you, take some time to think about how to do it in a way that will keep you safe.
6. Know when to quit
One of the smartest things you can do is to recognize quickly when things are not going well and get yourself out. If you are in the middle of a week-long backpacking trip and the weather turns rainy and icy, you’re probably smart to turn around and head back rather than risking being stuck in deadly conditions. If you’ve started a new job and find that you are being asked to do unethical things or work with toxic people, you should figure out how to cut your losses and move on. If you’ve gone to a party with new friends and people begin drinking to excess or engaging in other risky behavior, you are better off getting out of there quickly. This is sometimes hard, because you may have invested a lot of time, energy, money, and/or personal credibility in your chosen course of action. To make smarter decisions, it’s important to recognize what economists call “sunk costs.” These are things you have already spent that you won’t get back no matter what you do. Try to mentally write those off, and look at the current situation with a fresh set of eyes. This can keep you from getting stuck in situations that are only going to get worse instead of better.
7. Trust your instincts
People are able to very quickly perceive cues in a situation that can help them recognize potential danger. Certain parts of your brain are continually monitoring your surroundings and sending signals to your body. If you can learn to recognize those signals, whether it’s a funny feeling in your stomach, a sense of unease, or a reduced level of energy, you can use them to help you make better decisions. If you ignore that sense that something is wrong, or believe that you need a logical explanation for every decision you make, you are likely to miss important information that could help you avoid trouble.
8. Rehearse responses
If you can anticipate potential problems and challenges, you can decide what you would do and practice those responses. This strategy can encompass a wide range of things. For instance, if you are in high school and going on a date to a party, you could think about situations you might encounter (someone offers you a drink, someone pressures you to have sex, etc.) and practice what you would say in those situations. This will make it much easier to come up with a good response in the heat of the moment. If you have a home and family, you can think about things that might happen (a natural disaster, a home invasion, etc.) and talk together about how you would communicate and what you would do. You can practice first-aid techniques so you are ready for a range of medical emergencies. You can also think about where you could go or who you could reach out to for help or safe haven if necessary.
9. Don’t draw attention from predators
There are predators in the world; people who look for others to rob, rape, or otherwise harm. They are on the street, in our schools, and in corporate hallways. For the most part, these predators look for obvious and easy prey—people they can take advantage of with little or no risk to themselves. To avoid drawing attention, there are some obvious things you want to avoid—like flashing large sums of money around and wearing obviously expensive jewelry in unfamiliar environments—but there are subtler things as well. Research suggests that street criminals do not select their victims at random, nor do they focus primarily on age, size, or gender. They pay attention to such things as posture, walking pace, and other aspects of body language that suggest vulnerability. This suggests that if you stand tall and walk confidently, you reduce your chances of experiencing a physical attack. Similarly, to avoid being a victim in a workplace or school, it’s important to carry yourself with confidence and be willing to stand up for yourself rather than to be seen as someone who is fearful and vulnerable.
10. Practice self-defense
Physical threats are a form of adversity that many people do not encounter frequently. However, it’s very helpful to know what to do if you should be attacked, and this kind of practice can actually make it less likely that you will experience an attack. Self-defense starts with awareness of personal space and knowledge of what to do if someone comes closer than you are comfortable with. It includes ways to stand and speak that establish boundaries and clear limits. You can also practice techniques for responding to various forms of holds and chokes, and learn which parts of an attacker’s body are most vulnerable and how to strike them effectively. Advanced levels of training can also include martial arts and safety and proficiency with various weapons. There are many sources for self-defense training, and this form of preparation can greatly increase your self-confidence in dealing with many types of challenge.
11. Live within your means
Many people, even those who are well above the poverty level, spend most or all of what they earn, and do not build up savings for emergencies. A significant medical problem or the loss of a job present large enough challenges without adding the stress of not being able to pay the rent or not having insurance coverage and going into debt to cover medical bills. When these additional financial hardships are added to the mix, the risk of homelessness and other significant life challenges increases significantly. With this in mind, think carefully about the financial choices you make. Minimizing debt and building a solid cushion of savings to see you through potential hard times can provide a tremendously useful buffer against adversity. This is not always easy, but if you take it one small step at a time, and seek financial advice when you need it, you can slowly build up your cushion.
12. Don’t be stupid
This last category is a catch-all for the many idiotic things that people do to bring harm to themselves and others. Examples of people who bring unnecessary adversity upon themselves are plentiful. One of the most eagerly circulated annual lists is that of the “Darwin Awards,” stories of people who have brought death or significant harm to themselves in unusual ways. While these are often humorous, they also serve as a reminder that taking some time to think before acting is generally a good idea.
“Don’t go stupid places; don’t hang out with stupid people; don’t do stupid things.”
John Farnam, self-defense instructor
There is no strategy that will help you avoid all forms of adversity, but by being aware of the potential risks of the activities you undertake and making decisions that respect those risks, you can reduce the likelihood and impact of major challenges.
Bonus: Higher-Quality Challenges
If you’re familiar with the Challenge Map model, you may recognize that the challenges I’m talking about in this article mostly come from the right-hand side of the map—those that come from outside us. Because we only have one supply of energy that we use to deal with the entire set of challenges we face, it’s become clear to me lately that the more effectively we can limit the energy we spend on challenges we didn’t choose, the more resources we have available for the challenges we choose.
The world is in great need of people who are willing to take on big challenges. Addressing social and environmental issues, bridging political divides, inventing and creating things, confronting difficulty and danger—all of these are more possible when our energy is plentiful. For me, this has become one of the main catalysts for continuing to study and talk about resilience. Well-being is important, but it’s especially important when we are able to put it into service and do what we can to make the world a better place.
This article is adapted from Prosilience: Building Your Resilience for a Turbulent World. I had fun revisiting it and adding the bonus section at the end! If you have additional strategies for avoiding or minimizing adversity, or thoughts on “intentional challenges,” I’d love to hear about them.