Growing up in El Salvador in the 1980’s, Sara built resilience to endure the extraordinary hardship of living in a country in turmoil. But even growing up through a civil war didn't prepare her for what she'd experience when moving to a new city with her husband and young family. She had just finished setting up her new house in Brisbane when her husband suddenly developed an unexplainable illness.
“He was just always tired. Absolutely broken down to the point that he couldn’t go to work anymore. We kept seeing doctors and going to different hospitals to find out what was wrong but nobody could give us answers.”
Although she had faced more than most, she said that her husband’s illness was one of the worst times of her life.
“I’ve always been an optimistic and happy person. There were difficult times in my childhood but I always stayed positive and it helped me come out on top. I don’t think I had experienced such an intense personal struggle until my husband got sick. That was the first time where I thought my positivity wasn’t going to get me through. I suddenly found myself in a really sad and dark place where nothing gave me joy. It seemed like all of my days were taken up by visiting doctors and going to hospitals to try and find out what was wrong with him”
"I don’t think I had experienced such an intense personal struggle until my husband got sick."
With her partner of 13 years suddenly bedridden, Sara’s life was turned upside down. Juggling her new role as a digital project manager, the kids, the house and caring for her partner who was unemployed, Sara’s mental wellbeing became an afterthought. What’s worse is that all of her family was overseas so she didn’t have that support network to help her.
“It was my birthday and I had calls and messages with well wishes from my friends and family. I was walking home that afternoon and my best friend called me and I decided not to answer. All these people wanted to talk to me but I felt that if I answered I would just depress them. I realised in that moment how much this was affecting me and that I needed to turn things around.”
Sara thought back to her past experiences and remembered how staying positive and focussing on what she was grateful for had helped her bounce back.
"I changed my thinking from focusing on the negatives in my life to being grateful for the things I had."
“I changed my thinking from focusing on the negatives in my life to being grateful for the things I had, like the calls and good vibes from people that loved me. From then on, I tried to consciously decide what it was I wanted to be grateful for each day. Little things like my children laughing, my children playing together and catching the train. Even though my husband wasn’t 100% I was grateful for having hospitals, grateful for having doctors. By replacing those unhelpful, negative thoughts with happy ones I was able to make myself happy too ”
Showing gratitude can improve your self-esteem, enhance empathy, reduce negative thoughts and even help you sleep. Practising gratitude regularly will also help build your mental resilience, as it helps you focus more naturally on positive things. A common way to practise gratitude is to spend time each day making a list of the things you’re feeling grateful for. It can be as simple as two or three good things that happened in your day and can include people, places or things.
"When you start being grateful for things, you start to take notice of all the good things in your life and you start enjoying the things you’re doing."
Sara says she writes down things she’s feeling grateful for onto post-it notes. They stay on her desk so she can quickly glance at them whenever she feels down or stressed.
“When you start being grateful for things, you start to take notice of all the good things in your life and you start enjoying the things you’re doing. It gives you control of your life and you feel like you can help others. In the year that my husband was sick, I grew as a person in a lot of ways. I learned that I have control over the things that I feel. I can decide to feel like the victim of the situation or I can accept my situation and decide to find a positive way of thinking about it.”
Sara’s husband has since made a full recovery and life has returned to normality for her family – but she still practises gratitude every day. Sara says to never underestimate the power of positivity and the simple act of reflecting on the good things in your life.