Thriving through adversity, part 4: learning from adversity

Written by Dr. Jo Maddocks, Chief Psychologist
Previously published by PSI Talent Management or Cubiks, prior to becoming Talogy.

In this series of four blogs, I have outlined the four stages of how we respond, adapt, and recover from adversity. The fourth and final stage in the process is called Thrive – how we learn, grow, and become more resilient following adversity. This stage is associated with feelings like hope, optimism, and self-belief. These feelings lead to behaviours that help us reflect on our experiences, think about the future, and become stronger as a result. It is important to remember that the Thrive process is cyclical; it is only by learning from the past that we become more resilient in the future.


Overcoming adversity often helps us appreciate what we may take for granted – our health, family, friendships, employment, and being part of a society where our primary physical needs of food, shelter, water, and healthcare are largely met. For many people, the pandemic has threatened many of our basic human needs. Just as a plant has the need for sunlight, water, and nutrition, so too people have emotional needs. Social isolation, ill health, financial hardship, job insecurity, and concern for family members all highlight feelings of vulnerability. 

The pandemic has brought to light how vulnerable we are as a generation. Something, up to now, in wealthier countries at least, we have largely been protected from. Consumerism, materialism, and Western values can be a distraction from the reality of our precarious position on the planet. Global catastrophes are rare, but they can galvanise a change in society and collective thinking. Given the global concern for the climate, this is perhaps a time to reflect on how we perceive ourselves and our future on the planet we inhabit. 

Individually, it is an opportunity to reflect and learn from our personal experience. Humans are very good at adapting to crisis, but we are also very good at moving on from unpleasant realities. It was only a few weeks ago that we were all consumed with other dramatic events such as flooding in the UK, fires across Australia, trade wars between the US and China, tension in Iran and North Korea, migration across Europe, and dare I mention Brexit! However, unless these events affected us personally, it is unlikely many of us took the time to reflect upon them. The real challenge in learning from adversity is how to slow down and reflect before our attention is drawn to the next newsworthy drama. Below are a few suggestions: 

  • Learn from past experience: There is a temptation when reflecting on past events to be self-critical, focus on mistakes, and think of what we “should” have done. All too often, we take for granted our strengths and fail to acknowledge what we have learned and achieved. We may assume that what we find easy, so too does everyone else. But this is not the case; people are different. Think back to other challenges you have overcome in your life (ill health, difficult relationships, bereavement, unemployment). Reflect on one of these events: 
    • How did you respond to the crisis initially? Were you calm, upset, angry, or relieved? 
    • How did you learn to adapt and cope with this crisis? Maybe you found support from others, changed your expectations, or adapted your behaviour. 
    • What personal strengths helped you through the crisis? Did you discover inner levels of resilience, stronger determination, or greater flexibility? 
    • What did you learn from the experience? How did the crisis make you stronger? Maybe you developed greater self-belief, improved your self-confidence, or learn new skills in coping with adversity.
  • Recognise your strengths: It is important to recognise that human beings, as with all living things, have the innate resources and inner strengths needed to cope with the adversities of life. A tree has bark for protection, roots to extract water, and leaves to absorb sunlight. People have language for communication, empathy to connect with others, intelligence to solve problems, awareness to make choices, imagination to create the future, and self-insight to learn from the past. The trick is learning how to harness our inner resources. This comes from developing wisdom, which comes from reflecting and learning from past experience.  
  • Integrate your learning: Stepping back and taking a wider perspective on ourselves, our relationships, and how we want to live our lives can feel uncomfortable, but it is vital for long-term health and well-being. Here are some broader life questions to reflect upon: 
    • What is the future you want to create for yourself? (for your work, your family, and your relationships) 
    • What do you need to do to create this future? 
    • If you continue doing what you are doing now, what future will you create for yourself?  
    • What legacy would you like to leave/how would you like to be remembered?

In these four blogs, I have described the four stages of change and adversity. Take this opportunity to consider your response to the pandemic and lockdown at each of these stages.

  • Survive: What was your initial response? How did you feel, think, and behave?
  • Adapt: How did you adjust and cope with and changes? 
  • Recover: How have you overcome specific challenges?  
  • Thrive: What have you learned from these experiences?  

We may not be able to control our environment, but we can learn to manage ourselves and become more resilient in coping with future life adversities. Nature is a powerful example of this and provides a useful metaphor for the four stages of the Thrive cycle. 

Autumn is preparing to Survive the hardships of winter. 

Winter is Adapting to the prolonged, but temporary, adversities of the season. 

Spring brings hope and Recovery from the ravages of winter. 

Summer is a time to Thrive and grow; when nature is at its strongest.

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