Handling Distress: The Power of Optimism, Hope and a Problem-Solving Attitude.

Resilient people tend to take a problem-solving attitude toward stressful situations. That attitude is closely linked to optimism and hope, which are known to foster resilience.

Let me explain by retelling a story from Sports Psychologist and Major League pitching coach, Harvey Dorfman. He describes an encounter with a pitcher, Steve Mura, who had spent six seasons in the Major League and won 12 games for the 1983 Cardinals He was the starting pitcher for that night’s game.

Dorfman was chatting with him, and Mura shook his head silently. When asked what that was about, he said, “I can never win on this mound.”

In the ensuing discussion, Dorfman told Mura, “There is a difference between, ‘I have not won and I cannot win’.” After all, there are many things we accomplish for the first time. Otherwise there would be no such thing as breaking one’s personal record.

When questioned further, Mura complained about the height and slope of the pitching mound. Dorfman asked him what kind of adjustments he could make to deal with that. Mura thought it over and came up with a strategy. He had never done that before. Mura pitched seven innings that night and gave up only two runs on hits.

So, Mura began in a state of pessimism and hopelessness. As Dorfman pointed out, why should anyone think about solving the problem if failure is foreordained? And if they do not even begin problem solving, they obviously cannot persist in finding a way to succeed.

Once Mura shifted from pessimism and hopelessness to a problem-solving mode, it took only a few minutes to develop a plan of adjustments that led to success.

We often block ourselves from problem-solving by attributing our failures to our inherent characteristics. Think of the student who gets a poor grade on a test and concludes, “I am just stupid”. How does she or he solve that problem? Seems pretty hopeless to me.

What if, instead, the student thinks, “I wonder if the teacher could show me some better ways to study or to take notes.” Or, “I wonder if I could study with Zoey ; she always gets A’s?” That’s the opening of a problem solving attitude, which can easily lead to optimism and hope, and maybe even a romance. And from there to resilience and a real shot at success.


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