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The adaptation process

The process of adapting to change is a natural transition with varying degrees of difficulty depending on the event that caused it. If the change stems from a personal choice, adaptation will obviously be easier. However, when imposed by an unexpected and difficult event, such as mental illness, it causes discomfort that will make for more anxiety and a lengthier adjustment process.

The way in which a family experiences adaptation also depends on several predetermined factors.

  • The duration of the denial period. When the event is painful, the denial period may become prolonged. In that case, the situation will deteriorate, making adaptation more difficult.
  • The life experience already acquired. Our successful adaptation experiences provide us with tools for further success. Families that has already successfully navigated difficult times will be better equipped to deal with new challenges. Similarly, an individual with some life experience will have an easier time recognizing his or her illness and the losses it imposes.
  • The meaning given to the event. When we perceive difficulty as a new experience to navigate rather than an inescapable catastrophe, we are more motivated to face it. Thus, families who accept the onset of mental illness as part of their family history are likely to be better able to adapt than those who perceive it as a strike against the family unit.
  • The sociocultural environment and community expectations. Families who have mastered some knowledge of the learning process and adjusted their expectations to the realities of new situations will be more successful in their adjustment. This knowledge is not related to the family members’ educational level but rather to their family values, their mutual respect for one another’s abilities and their openness to learning new skills for the well-being of the whole family.
  • The person’s role within the family. Depending on the person with the illness’s limitations and its impact on members of the family, each person’s adjustment also depends on his or her place within the family structure and any associated changes in role.
  • The family life stage. The age and life stage of various family members will be important determinants in the ability of each individual and the family unit to adapt. A loved one’s illness is experienced differently by a younger brother than by a parent or spouse.

With transitional periods come anxiety and discomfort, but our psychological defences can help reduce these feelings. Human beings cannot live in defensive situations. Defence mechanisms are tools for adaptation but not endpoints in and of themselves.


Individual qualities

In addition to family determinants, certain individual qualities influence the ability to adapt, such as our :

  • propensity for action and the belief that we are in control of our lives
  • flexibility or ability to change
  • ability to achieve balance in our thoughts and emotions
  • ability to accurately perceive events and our skills
  • ability to access our emotions and express them freely
  • network of satisfying relationships with others
  • self-esteem

If this list seems idealistic, know that all of these qualities can be acquired. Some people will need support in finding them, but they are achievable. You just have to find the help you need to learn how to do so.

All of these items play a role in the adaptation process for both the person with the illness and their family. As a result, it is difficult to predict how long it will take each person to return to an acceptable state of well-being. Choices will need to be made and, to better cope with the experience, family members and the person with the illness can help each other by using the following tools :

  • Actively search for information. The best way to feel prepared is to be informed. Mental illness and its impacts are beginning to be better understood and documented. Understanding what is happening will allow you to feel less overwhelmed. Family service organizations were created by families to meet needs they are familiar with. You just have to ask for help.
  • Express emotions in a positive way. All emotions including the most difficult ones, like anger and guilt, are natural reactions to painful events. They deserve to be expressed, and there are ways to do so without harming those around you. Find the right place to express yourself without pressure or guilt, such as with close friends or in a support group.
  • Acknowledge your frustration. A loved one’s mental illness creates a sense of helplessness for all those who wish to help. When felt, this frustration should be acknowledged and expressed, preferably in a supportive, non-judgemental environment, such as that provided by a support group.
  • Seek outside assistance. This assistance can take different forms depending on your needs. We should recognize the burden of mental illness and accept the available help. Sometimes another individual can provide more effective assistance to your loved one. Wearing yourself down mentally and physically by tackling your loved one’s illness alone is not a solution, but rather a way to end up with two people in distress.
  • Take a systematic approach to problems and solutions. A loved one’s mental illness raises many concerns that cannot all be solved at once. For each concern, it is best to find a solution that works for you. This way, you will feel more in control of the situation. We must also recognize problems over which we have no control and accept that the solution does not lie with us.
  • Recognize your physical and emotional limitations. We all have limitations and failing to respect them can jeopardize our own health, which is not very helpful for our loved one.
  • Maintain confidence in yourself and in others.
  • Be optimistic!

Finally, certain family qualities are necessary to ensure a successful adaptation process when dealing with an event that affects the entire family. Developing these qualities may require a family to change how it functions. These changes require the support of all family members. It is important to remember that when a family unit is suffering, it may be beneficial to change one’s approach to reduce the suffering. If you can agree on the following actions together, you can congratulate yourselves on having made the adjustments required for the survival of your family.

  • The family must agree to treat a loved one’s illness as a family problem rather than the problem of a single family member. This acceptance opens the door to finding common solutions and prevents the burden from falling on one person’s shoulders.
  • Family members should clearly identify the stressor related to the illness : Is it the lack of motivation, the delusions, the emotional dependence or the sleepless nights? Each family member should be allowed to express what bothers them the most, and then work with the family to find a solution to the problem.
  • Problems identified by family members should be addressed using a problem-solving approach.
  • Information about the illness and its impact should be shared with all family members who are in regular contact with the person who has a mental illness. When effective communication is established, family members are better equipped to help.
  • It is beneficial for family members to clearly express the level of commitment they are able to take on in regard to the person with the illness. If some members refuse to be involved, their decision should be treated with tolerance and respect by other family members.
  • To maintain family cohesion, the role of each family member and the assignment of tasks and responsibilities will need to be reviewed periodically.
  • Family members should feel comfortable using community resources to help ease the burden.

Obviously, the adaptation process can be long and challenging. However, all family members will reap the benefits of going through it.


Things to remember

A family is more than the sum of its parts. Changes experienced by one member lead to changes for all members and the system as a whole. Families operate in a cyclical rather than linear fashion. They adapt gradually to change and will have both strong and weak moments.

Source:  Resilience.

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