“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny.” – Paulo Coelho

Imagine someone who has experienced a major life event, such as the death of a loved one, unemployment, or illness. The stress associated with major life events – positive or negative – can take its toll on overall well-being. What quality might distinguish someone who suffers an emotional or mental breakdown from someone who not only survives, but thrives, in the face of adversity?

As you have probably experienced firsthand, life doesn’t always follow a predictable course. Some people spend their lives cultivating a healthy lifestyle… priding themselves on being self-disciplined in their diet and fitness regimens. Despite this diligent behavior, even the most health-conscious people can receive an unexpected diagnosis of a life-threatening illness. Other people may spend years building a business from the ground up and watch it crumble before their eyes from an unexpected event. When life gets hard… really hard… how do you cope?

Change & Stress

Life means change… change means stress. The inherently stressful nature of change can be transformed into a positive (eustress) or negative (distress) force. Just as stress manifests itself in positive and negative forms, so do life events. For most people, getting married or taking a vacation are considered positive events, while divorce or personal injury are considered negative events. It might be easier to imagine the stressful nature of these negative events, yet all of these life events will bring change… thus, stress.

Resilient people tend to adapt well in the face of adversity and “bounce back” from stressful circumstances. Psychological resilience is one of many human strengths studied in positive psychology. Resilience is an incredibly powerful protective device against potentially deleterious effects of stress. It’s possible to do more than simply weather the storm and survive… we have the potential to embrace change and become even stronger as a result. Research has increasingly focused on this quality associated with not only surviving tough times, but also enhancing health and performance: hardiness.


Hardiness is “a pattern of attitudes that helps in turning stressful circumstances from potential disasters into growth opportunities” (Maddi et al., 2013, p. 128). People with high levels of hardiness tend to have a core belief that challenges are opportunities for growth. Research indicates a triad of attitudes associated with high levels of hardiness (e.g., Maddi et al., 2013).

“The 3 C’s” of Stress Hardiness

Stress hardiness is a mindset that serves as a protective buffer against the negative impacts of stressful events. This mindset is composed of three basic attitudes:

(1) Commitment

People who are strong in commitment believe that no matter how stressful circumstances get, it’s better to stay actively engaged with people and events than retreat toward alienation. Commitment translates to full involvement with the task at hand. Developing mindfulness in daily life is one way of increasing active engagement with the present moment. Getting committed to your goals in the face of adversity means wholeheartedly giving your best efforts to rise to any occasion, knowing that you’re not “perfect.” This type of active commitment allows for curiosity, not detachment or isolation. Meaningful involvement with stressful life events is a protective mechanism that makes up one aspect of the hardiness triad.

(2) Control

People who are strong in control believe that no matter how tough things get, it’s better to keep exerting influence on outcomes than fall into powerlessness. This attitude of control provides the confidence and motivation to actively seek out ways to influence stressful situations, quelling helplessness. The tricky part about control is that we don’t have direct control over other people… but we do have control over our personal thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. The thoughts you focus on and the behaviors you perform are choices. This translates into a great deal of control over transforming a potentially disastrous situation into a positive and meaningful learning experience.

(3) Challenge

People who are strong in challenge believe that stress is a normal part of life that offers opportunities for growth. A challenge mindset involves meeting stressful life events head-on and embracing the chance to grow from adversity. These people tend to welcome novel or stressful events in life, looking for hidden possibilities to develop new skills or make improvements. Instead of reacting to challenges with defensiveness or negativity, people with a strong challenge attitude mindfully respond to challenges. Adopting this attitude toward the inevitable challenges in life allows for healthy risk-taking, optimism, and motivation.

How do you typically respond to stressful life events, major or minor? Try noticing your habitual ways of responding to unexpected changes in your daily routine, stressful interactions with people, or unanticipated news. While you cannot always predict what curve balls may come your way in life, the attitude that you adopt in the face of adversity is up to you.

It’s not a matter of “if” stress will enter your life, it’s “when.” Change is happening all around you, even if you’re by yourself and sitting perfectly still. Notice the differences in how you feel, think, and interact with others when you choose to embrace change and become an active participant in your own life. Consider how you would benefit from adopting an attitude of hardiness in the face of adversity by building a mindset a strong commitment, control, and challenge. Hardiness is the courage, optimism, and tenacity that lies deep down… you have the power to stir the embers and awaken the fire within.

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Carter, C. (2013). Failure makes you a winner. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/raising_happiness/post/failure_winner

Holmes, T. & Rahe, R. (1967). Holmes-Rahe Social Readjustment Rating Scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 2, 213-218.

Maddi, S. R., Erwin, L. M., Carmody, C. L., Villarreal, B. J., White, M., & Gundersen, K. K. (2013). Relationship of hardiness, grit, and emotional intelligence to internet addiction, excessive consumer spending, and gambling. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 128-134.

Featured image: The dandelion that grew from a crack in the concrete by Martijn de Valk / CC BY-NC 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

1 Comment

  1. Balance Roundup: 5 June 2013 on June 5, 2013 at 7:05 am

    […] I often write about how important it is to find tools and support that help us through life’s challenges.  Laura Schenck, MA explores this in her post about the quality of “hardiness.” […]

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