Bouncing Back

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 13, 2012

No matter what troubles you face, at work or at home, it’s worth asking youself one question: What would Howie Truong do?

In 1977, as Truong fled postwar Vietnam with his wife, baby son and several other people, their motorboat was captured by pirates. The pirates forced everyone aboard their own boat; although brusque toward the adults, they doted on the baby and tried to buy him. After a few days, they shoved Truong into the sea. He nearly drowned before he was rescued by fishermen. Weeks later, in Thailand, he learned that his wife’s body had washed ashore; he would spend 34 years wondering what had happened to his son.

How in the world did Truong survive the grief that followed his ordeal? How did he move to America, become an expert metalworker, remarry, raise four more children, and eventually find his firstborn? Truong, handsome and dark-haired at 54, smiles in his living room in West Henrietta, N.Y. “I told myself, ‘Get going,’ ” he replies emphatically. “ ‘Life has to go on.’ ”

If you think Truong’s story has little to do with your own, think again. Resilience like his can be learned, experts say. And it can help you through just about any setback—a blow to your business or health, for instance; a death, a divorce, a disaster.

“Resilience is very important in today’s uncertain world,” says Harvard psychologist Robert Brooks, Ph.D., author of The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life. It’s a trait worth nurturing even when all is well, he believes, so you’ll be better prepared for a crisis. But if hard times have already knocked you down, it’s not too late to bounce back. “There are certain outlooks and skills we can develop,” Brooks says, “so that regardless of what the adversity or challenge may be, we are able to deal with it.”

And who better to coach us than Truong and others who have endured life at its worst?

Pulling Yourself Forward

Getting flattened by adversity is, of course, as common as adversity itself. Inertia, self-pity, junk-food binges: All are par for the course, experts say, and nothing to beat yourself up about. “I think of grief as ebbing and flowing rather than as a distinct phase that ends,” says Karen Reivich, Ph.D., co-director of the Penn Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania, which trains soldiers and others to manage stress. The more time passes after a major loss—of a job, a loved one, or home—the more you’ll feel able to get up and at ’em, Reivich says. “The good periods get longer and the others, shorter.” The trick is to take advantage of those good periods. “If there’s that voice inside you that says, ‘I don’t want to get out of bed, but I probably could,’ listen to that voice,” Reivich says. “Sometimes you may need to give yourself a little pep talk—‘I know I don’t feel like getting up, but if I get going it’s going to feel better than if I don’t get going.’ ”

Listening to those who love you is important, too: the buddy who says, “Grab your coat—we’re taking you out.” The brother who insists you start writing a new résumé. “Rely on people that you trust, who know you and know your style, to help pull you forward a bit,” Reivich says.

Another powerful pulling force: obligation. For many who find themselves unemployed or bereaved, a desire to “be strong” for children or a spouse can help. For Truong, what yanked him free of despair—and of drinking himself to sleep—was remembering his role in his family. “In my country, the big brother is the main guy to take care of sisters and brothers,” he says. After his nightmare at sea, he went to a Thai refugee camp. Then an uncle sponsored him to come to Louisiana. Within seven months of losing his wife and son, Truong was studying welding in upstate New York (home of his in-laws), determined to earn money, and bring his parents and seven siblings from Vietnam to live with him. “Sometimes I would buy beer, try to forget the past, but then that wasn’t good,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘Go out, learn something. Keep busy.’ ” Burying himself in his studies—and, later, his career—distracted him from his woes for long stretches and filled him with hope.

Taking Control

Any positive step you take after a major loss, in fact, can curb anxiety and keep you moving forward. “One basic finding in resilience research is that resilient people will focus on what they have control over,” Brooks says.

Something as simple as cooking a good meal can make you feel less helpless. So can taking a brisk walk, playing a musical instrument or writing a step-by-step plan for getting what you want. “When people feel overwhelmed, being able to break up a task in shorter- or longer-term goals is very important,” says Brooks, who has known plenty of overwhelming times himself. “I’ve always liked to put a couple of easy things at the top of my to-do lists, so I could check them off quickly. I know it’s only a mind game, but seeing a few things checked off, I could say, ‘OK! At least I got this out of the way.’ ” Making backup plans and lists is important as well, to buoy your spirits if Plan A doesn’t pan out.

Even at the most basic level, seizing control may help. Three years ago, financial planner Carl Richards found himself—ironically—in financial hot water after the stock market crashed and the housing bubble popped. He and his family wound up losing their $575,000 house in Las Vegas. Richards’ main way of handling the stress was to ride his mountain bike—and focus on his breathing. “It was kind of empowering to realize everything else may be out of control, but I can control my breath,” says Richards, who has since written The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money, and moved with his family to a rented home in Park City, Utah. “It gave me a sense of stability and ‘I can do this the next minute and the next, and doors will keep opening for me.’ It gave me the ability to say, ‘I can make the tough decisions. I can face this other stuff.’ ”

Finding a Team

When dealing with your own problems, resist the urge to isolate yourself. Join a support group. Keep up your social life. Don’t be shy about asking a neighbor to watch your kids while you go to an interview. “The myth of resilience is you go it alone,” Reivich says. “But resilience is really a team sport rather than an individual sport. Those people who have a board of advisers, a close-knit group—those people do better.”

No one knows this more than Jennifer Loredo, a master sergeant in the Army. In 2010, while she and her husband, Edwardo, were serving in Afghanistan, a roadside bomb left her a single mother of two. Back in the United States, Loredo began seeking other widows to talk with; some were part of a military support group, some not. “It just felt really like a relief almost, like I’m not alone in this—other people are going through it and they’re OK,” says Loredo, who lives in Fayetteville, N.C. “It kind of confirmed that my kids and I were going to come out OK.”

Counting Your Blessings

Odd as it may sound, something else that has helped Loredo—and countless others in desperate straits—is gratitude. Each night before bed, Loredo takes a few minutes to recall three pleasant moments of her day. She often jots notes on how they made her feel, what made them happen and how she might make such things happen again. One recent note was about learning that her 14-year-old daughter had aced an English test, another about hearing her 4-year-old son say, “Mommy, you’re beautiful.” Research suggests that this habit of reflection, taught to her by Reivich (from the Penn Resiliency Project), reduces symptoms of depression. “In the beginning it’s kind of hard to come up with three good things that happened every day,” Loredo says. “But after you do it for a while, you find yourself realizing there is a lot of good in your life and it definitely outweighs the bad.” Partly as a result, she now tries harder to let family and friends know she treasures them: “It could be something as little as telling my mom that I love her and I appreciate the time we spent together the last time I was home.”

All of which fits a common and welcome pattern known as “post-traumatic growth.” “We’re all familiar with post-traumatic stress,” Reivich says. “But in post-traumatic growth, when people emerge on the other side of something horrible, they know what their passions are. They have a new commitment to life and a greater sense of spirituality and faith. It doesn’t take away the suffering they feel, but some people experience this renewed sense of going after what matters in life. Research would support that that’s a critical part of healing and resilience.”

Lending a Hand

For Celeste Peterson, what matters in life is what mattered to her daughter. Erin Peterson was among 32 students and faculty shot to death in 2007 by a deranged student at Virginia Tech. More than anything, Erin—who died at 18—had wanted to work for a nonprofit that improves people’s lives. So now that’s what Peterson does. With donations that poured in after Erin’s death, she co-runs a program for at-risk boys who attend Erin’s high school in Fairfax County, Va. She takes the boys on outings, brings in speakers to inspire them, and gives them scholarships for books if they’re accepted to college. “It keeps my mind going,” she says. “I don’t just sit there and act pitiful. I don’t have the time to just feel sorry for myself.”

Helping others is a great way to boost your resilience, studies show. Like religion and spirituality, it can give you a sense of community. Like paid work, it can bolster your belief that you have a positive effect on the world. “This belief reinforces a sense of purpose to one’s existence,” Brooks has written, “thereby impacting positively on emotional and physical health.”

Peterson says amen to that: “Working with the boys does give me a sense of purpose. It’s like I can hear Erin in my head, saying, ‘Come on, Mom, we’ve got a job to do.’ ”

Accepting and Adapting

Another key to climbing beyond self-pity, experts say, is a willingness to reinvent yourself. Anna Hovind of Atlanta learned the truth of this six years ago, after losing her longtime position as a newsroom manager at CNN. Although her layoff came soon after her 25-year marriage dissolved, she found the divorce from her job even harder. And it wasn’t just because she missed the office camaraderie and excellent health benefits. “Before I got downsized, all I had to do was say, ‘I work at CNN,’ and people were like, ‘Wow’—and all of a sudden I didn’t have that,” she says. “I was just like an ordinary Joe on the street and that was a little bit of a challenge.” After she found a new job in broadcast public relations, she continued struggling with her relative obscurity. But as she mastered the duties of an unfamiliar field, Hovind found a fresh identity to take pride in: that of the plucky middle-aged professional who could compete with people in their 20s. “I kind of shook the dust of CNN off my sandals,” she says. “I said, ‘I’m done grieving for what I lost, and this is my new reality.’ ”

Tricia Downing can relate. In 2000, she was a cyclist who rode in races throughout the country. Then a bike accident left her paralyzed from the chest down. Downing threw herself into rehab and—on top of learning how to care for herself—mastered the challenge of using a handcycle and a racing chair. As a para-athlete, she finished 68 marathons and triathalons and many other races between 2001 and 2011. Now she’s training to make the U.S. Paralympic rowing team. “If I had thought, ‘Gosh, I can never come back from this injury,’ I probably wouldn’t have,” says Downing, who lives in Denver and has become a motivational speaker. “In the beginning I did have those thoughts, but I let them dissipate. I realized, ‘I can’t do things the same way I used to do them—I just have to find different ways.’ Telling yourself, ‘I can do this’ is really important to being resilient.” Another mantra that keeps her going on the racecourse and off: “Ride your own race.” Instead of comparing herself to others, Downing takes pride in beating personal records. “What it comes down to is focusing on what you do have and not what you don’t have,” she says. And by her own estimation, she has a lot: A nice house. Lucrative work. A loving husband she met seven years ago. And, of course, the biceps of an Amazon. “I feel accomplished,” Downing says. “I feel like I stared down a demon and I won.”

Forgiving, But Not Necessarily Forgetting

It’s easy after a major setback to be angry—at the spouse who dumped you, the driver who hit you, the boss who derailed your career. Yet one of the most important parts of resilience, experts say, is deciding to forgive. This shouldn’t be confused with forgetting, minimizing or denying hurtful actions, Brooks says. “Rather,” he explains, “forgiveness ensures that our lives are not dominated by intense anger and thoughts of revenge that lessen our own happiness.”

And here, again, we look to Howie Truong.

As the decades passed, he couldn’t shake the feeling that his stolen child, Khai, was still alive. The pirates had been too fond of the boy to have killed him, he believed. Last summer, after years of fruitless attempts to find him long-distance, Truong got his family’s blessing to take an extended trip to Thailand. Incredibly, thanks in large part to his dogged questioning of strangers and to help from Thai officials and media, he found Khai in a month. He turned out to be a father of two known as Samart Khumkhaw, who worked on a rubber plantation near the home of the couple who—apparently ignorant of his kidnapping—had adopted him when he was a baby.

Now Khumkhaw, on his first visit to the United States, sits with Truong in his living room. Father and son have matching eyes, matching mustaches, and, above all, matching infectious grins. Truong, the only one adept at English, does most of the talking.

One thing he realized during his trip to Thailand, he says, is he could easily track down the pirates and press charges against them. But he won’t. “I figure if I forgive them now,” he says, “later somebody will forgive me for something.” He glances at his recovered son, eyes widening as if he still can’t believe he is right beside him. “He was lost for 34 years. It’s time for me to make up for that.”


Five More Secrets of Resilient People

1. Keep a journal and read through it now and then. You’ll spot trends you may want to address (“I’m always sad around 6 p.m.”), and feel proud when you read of obstacles you’ve since overcome.

2. Think about what your greatest strengths of character are—from kindness to persistence to a knack for humor. Then brainstorm approaches to your problems that revolve around those strengths.

3. Don’t shield your partner or spouse from hard decisions you face. If you make them together, it will be easier for you both to live with the consequences.

4. As much as possible, even when times are hard, lift your spirits by keeping up with favorite hobbies or pastimes.

5. Stop asking, “Why me?” and start asking, “Why not me? How am I going to handle this? How do I help other people handle it?”