Surviving and Thriving: 3 Lessons About Dealing with Hard Times

Lonely Person

“Your current safe boundaries were once unknown frontiers.” ~Unknown

Lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV and massive machines, I seriously considered the possibility that I was having a nightmare. Everything felt so surreal.

At 22 years old, my life was full of promise and potential. I had recently graduated from college and it was a time of beginnings. I was living in Manhattan and had begun working in music publishing.

I had no idea that a late night trip to the emergency room due to a rapid heart rate would result in a weeklong hospitalization.

When extreme, unexpected, life changing, or scary things happen, how can we not only survive them but also grow from the experience?

1. Embrace the situation you’re in.

I was in the emergency room when the doctor gravely told me this was serious. My thyroid was pumping out gigantic quantities of thyroid hormone, leading to a potentially fatal thyroid storm. I was wheeled upstairs and admitted to the “step down” unit, one step down in care from ICU.

Hearing the doctor’s extreme words, I was shocked into inaction. I was so taken off guard that fighting or fleeing didn’t even cross my mind. I simply stayed where I was, lying on the bed, and prepared myself to accept this crazy situation and cope with whatever happened next.

When you’re dealing with a massive challenge, it’s okay to feel numb at first. You think, is this really happening to me? Disbelief and denial can then lead to a sense of injustice. You think, why is this happening to me? This isn’t fair.

As someone who had never broken a bone, let alone been hospitalized, I was in unchartered waters. I quickly realized I had to relinquish control—to the situation and to the doctors and nurses—and I had to stop clinging to my life as I had known it.

When you recognize that you’re in a trying time and accept that you can’t change it, you’re no longer a prisoner to your situation. You free yourself to deal the best you can with the challenge ahead of you.

I used to be so resistant to change, particularly when it felt like the death of life as I knew it, but now I try to embrace it and figure out how to reach a rebirth.

The less time and effort you expend resisting change, the easier it will be to go with the flow and create to a new normal.

Are you subconsciously holding on to any beliefs or ideas that could hamper your ability to let go? Are you in a situation that challenges some part of your identity or the way you define yourself, without even realizing it?

2. Feel gratitude for the good and the bad.

It’s okay to feel scared and understandable to feel sorry for yourself. In the midst of tribulation, negativity and depression can be alluring.

Gratitude is a potent tool for snapping yourself out of fear and self-pity. In almost any situation, you can find something—even if it’s the tiniest thing—to be grateful for.

I stayed in the hospital for a week because the doctors had to slowly bring my heart rate back down to normal and figure out what was causing my hyperthyroidism. They diagnosed me with Graves Disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes the thyroid to overreact.

During that week, I was grateful for so much—to be alive and cognizant, getting the medical attention and care I needed, having my parents with me, listening to my iPod. Also, it was nice to have a weeklong vacation from my computer.

In addition to focusing on the good things that you have, you can also feel grateful for the bad by thinking about what you’re getting from the experience.

I met and talked to so many doctors, nurses, medical students, and hospital staff. I watched how a hospital runs 24/7, and I enjoyed that it provided a new learning experience.

Whatever your problem, perhaps you can identify some good things it is currently bringing you. If not, maybe the good will come to you some time in the future, if you’re strong and patient enough to weather the storm.

In the moment, it’s empowering to realize that you can handle a challenge. How can you turn an ordeal into a positive, or at least how can you learn a lesson from a horrible experience?

This is a chance to morph, evolve, and adapt. It can be difficult and painful at first, but it means you’re on the path of growth.

3. Clarify and prioritize your life.

I had always heard that health is essential, and without health you have nothing, but I didn’t actually understand until being directly confronted with illness. I now prioritize taking care of my health—physical, mental, and spiritual—above all else.

We have so much power and so many tools to live as healthily and mindfully as we can, like meditation, exercise, and positive thinking.

You don’t need to face a life-threatening situation to remind you to live more mindfully. Once you figure out what really matters to you, you can start truly living.

What’s the purpose of your life, and what steps will you take to do what you want to do with your time? Big changes and challenges give us a gift—the opportunity of a fresh perspective to reassess our goals and our purpose. It takes time to process and heal, but the answers will become clear over time.

I’m still taking medicine and getting blood tests nearly a year later, and I sometimes get impatient. I’ve had to slow down, shift my priorities, and put some career prospects on hold. My first goal is to taper off all my medicine and get my Graves Disease into remission.

Since slowing down, I’ve become calmer and can see the big picture, aerial view. Nothing is more important than taking care of your body, mind, and spirit. If you’re healthy or working toward health in these areas, you really do have all you need.

Lonely person image via Shutterstock

About Suzanne Raga

Suzanne Raga, a recent graduate of Princeton University, publishes the indie music discovery blog After The Show. She shares her experiences playing drums in a rock band while also succeeding academically with middle and high school students in her book You Rock! How To Be A Star Student & Still Have Fun.

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  • Thanks for sharing this post Suzanne. Sometimes we forget about gratefulness, mindfulness and embracing life and we confront these difficult situations which serve as a teacher, no? Some of the biggest growth I’ve had in my life was due to changes and challenges.. Although it sure didn’t feel pleasant, I learned a lot and received the lessons life was trying to teach me.

    Along with gratefulness during life’s hard times, I’d add that we can take every experience is going to benefit us in some positive way. All works out for the best at the end. Holding on to that belief has made life easier to handle and has proved itself true quite regularly.

  • Nina Knox

    Excellent article! Thanks so much for sharing. As a happiness teacher myself, I realize that so many people feel that an ideal state of being would be to be happy all the time. I have learned, and now teach, that this isn’t possible in this life for anyone. But if we can learn to be grateful for the ups as well as the downs, accept what we can’t change. Learn and grow from the bad experiences.

  • Suzanne

    Thanks Nina! So true — accepting and even appreciating the ups and downs is something I always need to remind myself of…it’s so easy to forget, at least for me, but essential to remember.

  • lv2terp

    Great post!!! What courage, and strength you have. Thank you for sharing your story, and the advice is so valuable! I also love when you said…”When you recognize that you’re in a trying time and accept that you
    can’t change it, you’re no longer a prisoner to your situation. You free
    yourself to deal the best you can with the challenge ahead of you.” 🙂

  • Suzanne

    You’re welcome Vishnu. That’s so true – viewing difficult changes as challenges/opportunities for growth rather than problems is essential. And your point re: believing that every experience has a net-positive benefit is great.

  • Suzanne

    Thanks so much! I really appreciate you taking the time to comment (and compliment my courage and strength haha). I definitely don’t have it all figured out but trying our best is the best we can do.

  • Kate

    Thanks Suzanne. Oh how I would have loved to have had your insight at your age! I expected to read that your hospitalisation was many years ago not one. As someone who is hearing impaired and facing blindness, I am all about surviving and thriving, though, your point ‘are you in a situation that challenges some part of your identity or the way you define yourself?’ really put into words what I’ve struggled to explain, even to myself! Thanks for sharing this wonderful insight.

  • Such great advice! No sense in beating your head against a wall you can’t change…embracing the circumstances, finding reasons to be grateful, and living mindfully will make any situation better.

  • Suzanne


  • Mike

    Hi Kate, I just read your reply and you said you are hearing impaired? I work for a company that make implants for people’s ears, company is called Cochlear , u shud check them out 🙂


  • Suzanne

    You’re very welcome Kate. Wow that must be very difficult — it sounds like you’re doing an amazing job surviving and thriving though

  • Estrella

    Thank you so much I’m going through a difficult time and this helps. I need to learn from this and grow as a person. Thank you, thank you (: