Category Archives: Bouncing back

Why there’s a way out of every maze

I wouldn’t say I’m particularly claustrophobic, but I must confess to a slight moistness-of-palm at the thought of being confined in an overly-tight space. A walk along a wide open beach a week or so ago was a perfect reminder of how good it can be to feel unfettered and free.

To some, the idea of being lost in a maze might be pretty nerve-wracking, but I guess my anxiety about being shut-in somewhere doesn’t really extend to complicated arrangements of privet hedges.


If someone plopped you down at the centre of a maze, provided you kept calm, you’d reach the exit sooner or later. Sooner, if you used that logical trick of always keeping one hand on the wall to your left (or right if you prefer) – you’d end up visiting every single part of the maze, but would discover the way out eventually.

Although a maze is (to most) only a fun thing, perhaps the techniques for success can apply in other more serious avenues of life?

For a start, it’s good to set off believing that you’ll find your way out, even if it takes a bit of time. In the same way, when you find yourself in one of life’s spaghetti-heaps, a little self-belief goes a long way. Have confidence, keep the faith. Your end goal may not be in view now, but steady and gentle progress will get you there in the end.

Some mazes have an attendant sitting on a very high chair: they can see things you can’t, just like someone you know who probably has a clearer view of your dilemma than you. So if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.

Then there are always the little secret tips (like the hand on the wall one). You’ve probably ridden out storms before. What worked then? Look back and learn.

It may not always feel like it, but humans have a tremendous survival instinct. We nearly always bounce back, even though it may sometimes take a while.

Follow your hunches if you need to recover from a setback

When someone temporarily withdraws to recover from a defeat, we may say they’re ‘licking their wounds’.

It’s a strange turn of phrase which has its roots in the instinctive response of humans and animals to quite literally lick the site of an injury (just show a little prudence if you’re in company, however).


Apparently there’s an enzyme in saliva which can help to fight off potential infection, so the thing a wounded cat or dog does actually makes sense, even though it’s likely to put the vicar off if he comes calling.

What’s fascinating to me is that animals may indulge in this behaviour instinctively (they could, of course, have learned by being licked by their mother if injured when young, but you get my point).

The thing is that many creatures have their own in-built repair mechanisms, and it’s worth remembering this when it comes to knowing how to bounce back after a time when you’ve felt low.

Almost certainly you already know how to do this, and it can often be a simple matter of listening to your hunches.

You may need to start with a period during which you withdraw yourself from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

A bit of quiet can work wonders, but the golden principle is probably that a ‘bit’ is the operative word.

Shutting yourself away for too long is unlikely to help, so when the time’s right (listen to your hunches again) wean yourself away from relative solitude by easing yourself back into company, a person or two at a time.

Your heart may also tell you that certain places are good for you when it comes to recovering (the countryside does it for me, for instance) but it could be a zoo for you, or even a shopping mall.

What’s important is that almost certainly you do already know what to do, even if it’s been temporarily forgotten.

I just hope that all this talk of wound-licking hasn’t put you off your food, however.

Why it can help to treat a broken spirit more like a broken arm

Imagine you’d been doing something goofy and – ouch! – had ended up with a broken arm: seriously, there’s nothing humorous about a shattered humerus.

Now, the health professions have standard practices for dealing with fractured limbs, so it ought to be relatively routine to get you fixed up.


You may well end up with a plaster cast, and you’ll probably need to wait around six to eight weeks before it’s all healed up again.

I believe you may also discover the joys of scratching itches with a knitting needle pushed down in the gap between cast and arm.

Expect sympathy from people, along with plenty of felt-tipped-pen graffiti from those who view your cast as an artistic opportunity, and prepare to make adjustments to your everyday life as you realise how tricky it can be, for instance, to take a shower without wetting your plaster.

But you’ll get better.

Contrast this, however, with doing something – perhaps not so goofy – and ending up not with a broken arm, but a broken spirit.

Suddenly things aren’t so straightforward.

You’re unlikely to be whisked off to the emergency room, so might not get any professional help unless you seek it yourself.

Beyond thinking that you’re maybe acting a bit quiet, others have no equivalent of the white plaster cast to know you’re unwell – so unless you have unusually perceptive friends and family, be prepared for little sympathy.

It’s not fair, is it?

Why should the physically-afflicted get all the attention?

What might we learn from this, however, when it comes to dealing with low mood and depression?

Beyond accepting that asking for help can be terribly important, perhaps the principal principle is that healing takes time: it just doesn’t happen overnight.

In the same way that we expect a broken arm to heal as long as we allow it time, we should believe that a period of low mood will generally last for only a finite period, and that we’ll feel better in due course.

But it’s important to be realistic about resilience.

Recovery is absolutely possible, but only Elastic Man bounces back instantly.

Look back in your own past for ways to handle upsets

Most of us face times in life when we’re disappointed, but I wonder if, like me, you’ve ever really stopped to think about the word ‘disappoint’ itself?

In one, now archaic, use of the word, it meant quite literally the opposite of ‘appoint’.

You’d appoint someone to the office of chief cook and bottle-washer, but then might ‘disappoint’ them, removing them from their job, perhaps because they’d made burnt the cakes and smashed the bottles.

Nowadays of course we’re more likely to use the word to describe a failure to fulfil expectations.

(I was bitterly disappointed that, once again, they failed to draw my numbers in the Lottery.)

As I say, there will always be disappointments in life, and we start experiencing them at an early age: the first time we don’t win the egg-and-spoon race, or we do less well than hoped in a spelling test.

However, while disappointment is never pleasant, facing up to it and overcoming it helps to build your resilience in the same way that a young boxer gets stronger by learning to absorb punches, or a fledgling ballerina grins and bears the pain of dancing ‘en pointe’ in her formative years.

Although nobody can really tell us how to be resilient, we can look back at our lives to identify what’s worked in the past.

How did you cope?

What strategies did you use, even though almost certainly they won’t have seemed as formal as ‘strategies’ at the time?

Look at others, too.

Who has dealt with adversity in a way that has inspired you?

Maybe you can learn from them, and adopt some of their techniques?

It’s important to remember that working through bad times gets you beyond them (a favourite Churchill quote: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’) but also the very process makes you stronger, so that perhaps it won’t hurt quite as much next time.

What do when good times turn bad

I know this sounds like a cheesy line from the cover of a magazine, but it’s true that bad stuff happens to good people.

(Of course, bad stuff happens to bad people, too, and good-to-bad, good-to-good, as well, but the real point is that most of us will end up facing adversity at some time or other.)


When it looms, it’s important to cling to the knowledge that humans have a tremendous ability to bounce back.

In fact, our survival as a species has depended on this through the millennia.

So what are some strategies which can help you manage your way out of crisis?

Here are five:

1. Reflect on your past to identify times when you successfully dealt with adversity. What did you do then? Learn from this, and repeat.

2. Use the power of your imagination to visualise yourself beating the challenge, just like an athlete pictures herself defeating her competitors.

3. Tap into your network of friends, enlisting their help and support. Many hands make light work.

4. Be realistic in your expectations, because bouncing back may not be an overnight task, in the same way that it always takes time for a sprained ankle to mend.

5. Remember that, as a human, you’ve been programmed to overcome bad times, even if this sometimes involves sitting them out.

The right time to buy insurance is before a problem hits, so in the same way it makes sense to think about your coping strategies for bad times before you find yourself stuck in them.

You used to know all about bouncing back

In psychiatrist Dr Tim Cantopher’s thoughtful book ‘Depressive Illness – The Curse of the Strong’ he tells the tale of going wind-surfing with friends who were highly experienced practitioners of this exacting sport. He and one other member of their party were, however, Absolute Beginners.


While the others tore through the waves with the greatest of ease, Tim and the second novice fell off again and again, which probably wasn’t much fun for either of them.

Well in Tim’s case, it definitely wasn’t, as after this one attempt he decided that windsurfing wasn’t for the sport for him.

The following year though, he went away with these same friends again, determined to stay on the beach this time.

Like last time, the other beginner was one of the party, only – guess what? – he’d stuck at it and was now racing around with the best of them.

He’d bounced back in fine style.

We can’t be good at everything. My clarinet lessons didn’t do much for me. I was always the last to be picked for sports teams at school.

There’s something to be said for tenacity, however – for sticking at something through thick and thin – and to do this when it feels as if you are failing, I think you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

You may have done this literally if you learned to ride a bike.

You’ll have experienced it (but won’t remember) as you tried to form your first few words: few of us are born with faultless diction.

My point is that you’ve certainly bounced back from adversity in the past, and if you’ve done it before, you can do it again.

What worked before probably have involved a degree of bloody-mindedness.

You WERE going to ride that bike.

Perhaps the same principle can see you through other periods when it feels as though you’re falling off rather a lot?

Thomas Edison, the serial failure

Although Thomas Edison didn’t, as is often popularly claimed, invent the incandescent light bulb, he did improve upon and commercialise work which had been done by others some fifty years earlier.

And he took a trial and error approach when it came to hunting down a way to prevent his light bulbs’ filaments fizzling out in mere minutes.


Try something. Fail. Try something else. Fail. Another route. Fail. And so on, and so on, until he eventually chanced upon the perfect solution.

A less focused man would have given up and gone home to read by the light of his oil lamp, but Edison had a remarkable ability to keep going, probably helped in no small way by the view he took of what you and I might regard as failure.

When one of his many experiments ended in yet another burnt-out bulb, he explained that rather than failing, he’d actually successfully discovered one more way in which his goal was NOT going to be reached.

It’s a bit like someone finding their way out of a maze. Inevitably they’re going to take wrong turns, but provided they learn as they go, each blind alley takes them a step closer to finding the exit.

If you can, perhaps there’s something to be said for adopting such an approach when things don’t totally pan out for you? Rather than grumbling that it’s just another thing that’s gone wrong for you, maybe it’s possible to convince yourself that you’re actually now one step closer to reaching your goal?

The truth is, we never know how close we are to success. Don’t give up when it might be just one step away.

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again

You can pluck fruit from trees, and feathers from chickens. And you can of course also pluck up courage, which was how the word ‘plucky’ was conjured up in the early 19th century, to mean having courage and spirit in trying circumstances.

It’s a fine word, I’ve always thought, which seems to sound like what it stands for.


However I rather suspect that ‘trying circumstances’ are what most of us would think of as our daily lives, even though the challenges we face may be as nothing compared to a kid living on the street in Calcutta, say.

The thing is though, it’s not terribly feasible that you’ll go through life jumping from one success to another with the ease of a honey-bee instinctively gliding its way between pollen-rich blossoms.

The first time you try something, whether it’s baking a cake or riding a bike, you may not meet with the result you’d expected.

Perhaps your sultanas will sink to the bottom. Maybe you’ll scrape your knees and elbows (this latter having to do with bike-riding, you understand – it would indeed be most unfortunate to do yourself this degree of damage in the kitchen).

It’s when things don’t go your way that it pays to be a bit plucky: to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

Strategies for doing so may include having a quiet inner belief that you’ll get there – as you almost certainly have in the past. They may also embrace the idea that ‘right first time’ is a less helpful approach than it is to believe in ‘trial and error’.

Think about a time when some may have considered you plucky. What made them believe this? What were your strategies for bouncing back in the past?

And how might you use them in the present?

Life’s hard knocks might be vital.

I have soft hands. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit they have the podgy soft skin of someone who spends far too long at his desk, which never seems like real man’s work, if you know what I mean.

Contrast this with a friend back in the UK who’s a builder. When I shake his hand it’s like grasping an ancient baseball mitt. Roughened and toughened by constant manual labour, his epidermis is like dry old leather. You get the feeling he could crunch light bulbs in his bare hands without noticing a thing.


Of course there’s nothing particularly unusual about this. We take it for granted that we can build strength and resilience in any part of our body by bashing it about a bit.

Going without shoes and socks for a couple of weeks will take you from the initial agony of walking across a pebbly beach to that state where your tough old soles feel nothing, wherever you wander.

If you so choose, steadily increasing your exercise day by day could take you from couch potato to marathon runner.

The same can apply to emotional strength, too.

None of us likes knock-backs. I’m sure we wouldn’t willingly volunteer for some of the unhappy situations in which we might find ourselves.

But maybe something good can come out of adversity?

What if you were getting a little stronger every time life throws a punch at you? What if, little by little, bit by bit, you’re becoming more able to deal with life’s struggles?

You know, I think you just may be.

Ten strategies for coping with bad times

Let’s not beat around the bush.

There are times when we all have to deal with situations and circumstances that are likely to be mood-lowering, even for the most resilient individual.

When this happens it’s helpful to have some coping strategies on which to fall back.

Think of them as a kind of first-aid kit for the mind.


I’m sure you’ll already have a few of your own for such challenging times, but here’s a list of ten, one or more of which may be new to you, or at best forgotten.

1. Make a list of the things you like most about yourself.

2. Get out of the house or office to enjoy some time in nature.

3. Forget technology. Talk face-to-face with your family and/or friends.

4. Listen properly to your favourite music, giving it your 100% focus.

5. Fill the bath tub for a long hot soak. Bubbles always help.

6. Polish off a few small jobs you’ve been meaning to do for ages.

7. Sit down and absorb yourself in a really good book.

8. Watch an amusing TV show or movie.

9. Play with a pet – someone else’s if you don’t have your own.

10. Do something – anything – spontaneous. Just get up and do it.

Of course not all of these will suit you, but some may.

So keep them in the back of your mind ready for a grey day, just as you might keep medicines in a kitchen or bathroom cupboard.