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During times of adversity and suffering, regarding yourself as a survivor rather than a victim can help you to pull through

In October 2020, Derek Walsh, a 65-year-old retired painter and decorator was admitted to Bradford Royal Infirmary with a severe headache and breathing difficulties. He was initially treated on the hospital’s Covid-19 ward but, as his condition deteriorated, he was moved to the Intensive Care Unit, where he was put into an induced coma. In December, Derek developed sepsis and his wife, Sue, was told he might not survive.

Derek lived to tell the tale, we’re very glad to say. But it’s the title of the article that he wrote about his experience – Around the Wards in 80 Days: A Covid survivor’s story – and what it says about Derek’s attitude to his illness that interests us most. He calls himself a Covid “survivor”, not a “victim”, you’ll notice.

Derek’s experience is not unique. New research carried out by University Hospitals Sussex, and a number of universities, has looked at how psychology and reframing their view of their circumstances can be used to help those who have had Covid to recover and return to something approaching normal life. The researchers interviewed people who were admitted to critical care because of Covid-19, plus the professionals who cared for them and their families about the initial recovery period.

Returning to normality

Three themes emerged. First was the experience of deteriorating quickly, with a downhill journey from the arrival of symptoms to being admitted to critical care. The second related to facing a new virus in a hospital, which was a strange new place for the sufferers and the third talked about returning home as a survivor, recovering slowly and returning to normality.

The research team noted the language used by the patients – or “survivors” as they saw themselves in this final stage. They talked about “fighting” and “soldiering on,” for instance. This research suggests that as well as getting through an illness, mentally, this thinking about themselves as “survivors” can also help patients during the recovery process.

Previous research among cancer patients carried out by academics at the University of Sydney has explored how cancer patients adopt a similar strategy – in this case putting their experience into a narrative of their lives. As survivors, this involves thinking about the continuity of what happened before the period of adversity (suffering from cancer), what they’re going through now and what the future might look like. Put simply, they were able, in part, to get through their illness mentally, “by imbuing the experience with meaning and recognising the enlarged identity made possible by survival.”

Survivor and narrative

As we say in Be Bulletproof: How to Achieve Success in Tough Times at Work, AVAILABLE HERE, during difficult situations at work or when things are going badly in your career, regarding yourself as a survivor rather than a victim can help you to battle through. Similarly to the findings by the University of Sydney researchers, we connect to the survivor mentality, the idea of narrative, of seeing your life and your experiences as a story. Human beings understand the world through storytelling and in any good story there will be a time when the protagonist hits rock bottom or, to use the jargon, they’re “in the cave.”

Recognising that we’re in the cave and that it’s horrible, but we’ll almost certainly escape is important for dealing with adversity. Seeing yourself as a survivor of your time in the cave can help here. You’ll emerge battered and bruised, perhaps, but you’ll also probably emerge as a better person – wiser, more experienced and more resilient. You might well have a new perspective on life and you’ll have drawn on reserves of strength that you previously didn’t know you had.

“What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” is something of a cliché but, like a lot of clichés, it’s essentially true – and one way to benefit from the wisdom of this old saying is to regard yourself as a survivor.