I recently had a chance to view part of a documentary in one of my psychology classes entitled “This Emotional Life,” which originally aired on PBS. The film is a 3 part series that looks at how we can cope with emotional stressors and become more positive and resilient people. The documentary explores the stories of many people who have overcome great challenges in their life, and demonstrates how resilient we are capable of being.
For example, there was the story of Bob who became a prisoner of war after being kidnapped and held captive for 8 years in Vietnam. He was put into solitary confinement and faced brutal physical torture. During this time, he would spend hours each day envisioning the house he wanted to live in with his family, designing every last detail in his imagination. He also used a tap code to communicate with other prisoners through walls. Once he was rescued, he reunited with his family and built the house that he had spend all of those hours picturing in his head. He remained optimistic and believed he would prevail, which helped him cope with the isolation and physical pain.
Then there was Mike, who grew up with an alcoholic stepfather. He became involved with dealing and using drugs. After being arrested by police, he later got a job installing furniture, and was working in a doctor’s house when the doctor began to ask Mike about his life. They became friends and the doctor became a mentor to him. Mike is now a thoracic surgeon, and credits mentors in his life for guiding him through the tough times.
One important point I learned from the documentary was the idea that it is really our thoughts that lead to our emotions. If we can reframe the way we see a problem – for example, seeing something as a challenge rather than a threat – this is a better way to regulate our emotions, because we can jump in and change the way we feel before our emotions set in. However, that is not to say I completely agree that if we just think about accomplishing something it will automatically happen, or if we just think happy thoughts we will automatically be happy and all of our problems will be solved. And it can be good to feel negative emotions – even if they are unpleasant, they can drive us to achieve our goals and strive to be better.
Even though many of the stories in the documentary were quite sad, the film really showed how resilient people really are. We often think that if we are struggling in the present moment, that is how we are going to feel in the future. We lose hope and don’t try to find ways of improving our situation. The film shows how remaining optimistic and believing you can prevail is not really being naïve or unrealistic – people have the ability to overcome extraordinary circumstances. It won’t be an easy or painless process, and you can’t reverse what’s already happened to you, but you can make the decision to learn from it and grow as a person.
The main message that I took away from this documentary was that ultimately, we need each other. We need social connections to be happy. We need role models, people who can guide us and see the best in us. We need to help each other to experience happiness. Whether it is communicating with others while you are experiencing pain, like Bob did with his fellow prisoners, or finding a mentor who will give you a chance and guide you through difficult times like Mike did, it is clear that human connection is the key to happiness.
There are times where I am facing a challenges in my life and feeling anxious, depressed and hopeless. I can be consumed by my emotions and it’s difficult to have a positive outlook when you feel like you have no control over what is happening. But this documentary showed me that we have power over our thoughts and emotions, and if we believe that we have some control, that can really impact the choices we make and our outlook on life.
“The human capacity for burden is like bamboo – far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.
-Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
Ayesha is a fourth year student at the University of Toronto, majoring in Psychology and completing a double minor in Cinema Studies and Sociology. She enjoys watercolor painting, fantasy fiction, and crime dramas. She was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Depression and Social Anxiety.