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Stress Resilience: A process not a trait
“You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.”
― Margaret Thatcher
With everything that’s happened in 2020, life in America seems more stressful than ever. But have you noticed that people cope with stress differently?
As a funny motivational speaker, I have a bird’s eye view of an industry that turned upside down when our country closed in March. Like everyone else, all my speaking events postponed. Lots of speakers dealt with cancellations. Suddenly, virtual speaking became the only option.
“It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself that determines how your life’s story will develop.”
― Dieter F. Uchtdorf
People Cope With Stress Differently
That’s when I saw how differently people cope. Some speakers decided virtual wasn’t for them, so they are waiting it out. Others reluctantly dragged themselves into virtual but are still floundering today. A select few charged head-on into virtual speaking, now they love it and say they’ll never return to live events.
You’ve seen it yourself. Some people face pressures directly. They are mentally flexible. These people flourish and grow through tough times. While others pretty much curl into a ball and hide.
Let’s start by recognizing that stress gets a nasty rap. But truthfully, not all stress is bad. In fact, a bit of pressure is necessary to get you out of bed in the morning. Good stress helps you get things done; bad stress messes you up.
In this article, I summarize stress categories so you will better understand stress.
After that, I’ll give you tips you can quickly apply to build your stress resilience.
You Already Know Stress Can Be Harmful
By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the perils of stress: sleep disruption, increases in the stress hormone cortisol, cardiac stress, and depression. In addition, it can make you irritable, obese, and wreak havoc on your relationships. As if that isn’t enough, you may experience G.I problems, have difficulty thinking, and find yourself isolating. The list goes on.
The truth is that Chronic Stress correlates, in degrees, with all of these awful, scary effects.
Without a doubt, this is terrible. None of us want to be a lonely, irritable, fat, gassy, depressed person with heart and relationship problems. At first glance, it appears that stress should be avoided like the plaque (i.e.,
The Other Truth About Stress
While this awful stuff can be real, this isn’t the entire story. Here two important things to also understand about stress.
Stress also has lots of significant and positive benefits.
The way you look at stress is even more critical than the amount of stress you experience.
Different Types of Stress
“Its not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”
– Hans Selye
To clear this up, I’ll identify the different types of stress.
Normal Stress (Eustress)
Eustress is a situation or event when a bit of stress shows up, then quickly leaves. This stress can be beneficial. It may give you a burst of energy that helps you get things done. In addition, it may create an incentive that allows you to focus and improves your performance.
Example: Despite speaking to thousands of people yearly, I get a little burst of eustress before I grab the stage. This stress helps me sharpen my focus; it makes me alert and completely present. Ultimately eustress improves my performance.
Distress is harsher stress. Although it doesn’t last long, it does cause significant disruption. The effects are serious but short-lived. After experiencing distress, we usually return to a normal state.
Example: You trip during your morning jog (a reason I do not jog).
You suffer minor injuries but recover.
Traumatic Stress is a big deal. It is profound. After this experience, your beliefs and assumptions may change. You recover over time, but you are forever changed. Heavy or unrelenting traumatic stress may outmatch your capacity to cope. As a result, you may experience fatigue, exhaustion, or even a breakdown.
Example: A natural disaster such as a hurricane rips apart your home. You or a loved one becomes diagnosed with a major health problem such as cancer.
The Persistence of Stress
“These mountains that you are carrying, you were only supposed to climb.”
– Najwa Zebian
Stress can also be categorized based on how long it lasts.
Acute Stress is the most common form of stress. It may be a result of pressure and demands from the past or the future. Acute stress is exhilarating and exciting in small doses, but too much becomes exhausting.
Example: You arrive at work excited and ready to roar. But by 3 pm, you are drained and ready for a break. If you don’t take time to recharge, you risk making critical errors.
Episodic Acute Stress
Some of you may suffer from acute stress frequently. Perhaps your life is pummeled continuously with chaos and crisis. You may be juggling lots of demands and find it challenging to keep them all afloat. Episodic acute stress causes you to experience acute stress reactions, i.e., becoming short-tempered, over-aroused, anxious, irritable, and tense.
You may have lots of nervous energy. You may rush about but find yourself often late. At times you can be abrupt and irritable, causing you to respond to others with hostility. In the end, you may harm your relationships.
Example: You may self describe as a worry wart or a type-A personality. These characteristics can create frequent episodes of acute stress.
Chronic Stress is the eroding stress that wears you down bit by bit over a long time. Unfortunately, people experience this when they can’t see their way out of a bad situation. You may experience constant demands and pressures for seemingly never-ending periods.
Eventually, your hope depletes, and you quit looking for solutions. Chronic stresses may come from traumatic, internalized early childhood experiences that make the present painful.
Eventually, your view of the world or your belief system eternalizes this constant stress. The world becomes a threatening place. You may feel you must always be perfect.
Worst of all, you may normalize feeling this way. You get used to it. You forget that this unpinning pressure is even there.
Long Term Effect of Chronic Stress
Because acute stress is new, you immediately notice it. On the other hand, chronic stress becomes easy to ignore because it’s old and familiar. Oddly enough, it may even become almost comfortable. Your physical and mental resources erode.
This lack of resources makes the symptoms of chronic stress are more difficult to treat. Extended medical, as well as behavioral treatment and stress management, may be required.
Example: Chronic Stress may come from being in a dysfunctional family situation or living in the stress of poverty. You may feel trapped in a hated job or career.
Inside, not outside response to Stress
“Remember that stress doesn’t come from what’s going on in your life. It comes from your thoughts about what’s going on in your life.”
– Andrew Bernstein
Let’s face it, too often, our first response to stress is to look for help outside ourselves immediately.
We download productivity apps or invest in productivity software. These promise to help us reduce distraction, add hours to our day, and make our lives easier. Or instead, we look for more get more help at the office or home. We consider switching careers.
Sure some of these solutions can help. But more often than not, these external fixes are superficial and temporary because the answer lies inside, not outside of you.
Remember Your Power
In order to manage long term stress, you must find your internal power before looking for external solutions. By strengthening your resilience superpower, you can turn problems into challenges and difficulties into opportunities.
“On the other side of a storm is the strength that comes from having navigated through it. Raise your sail and begin.”
― Gregory S. Williams
Resilience, according to The American Psychological Association, is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress (such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors).
In other words, resilience is “bouncing back” from tough situations and painful experiences. The great news is that research continuously shows that resilience is ordinary—not extraordinary—and that people commonly demonstrate resilience. Research also shows that our resilience muscle can strengthen by choosing to respond positively to difficult times.
To be clear, emotional pain and sadness are common when we have suffered through trauma or major adversities. Furthermore, resilient people don’t live on cloud nine; they also experience difficulty or stress. Truthfully the road to resilience is likely paved by considerable emotional distress.
That said, resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. Instead, resilience is a process. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that resilience involves thoughts, behaviors, and actions that can be learned and developed in all of us.
3 Steps To Resilience
Unless you live under a rock, you already know that eating right, sleeping enough, and exercise are essential. All of these help you better deal with stress and increase your resilience.
Instead of rehashing these critical factors, I’ll introduce a few mental tools you can use.
STEP ONE: Find Your Locus of Control
Locus, according to Merriam-Webster, means a place where something is situated or occurs.
Do you have an Internal or External Locus of Control?
If you are uncertain, you can take a quick quiz to determine the position and strength of your locus of control.
To sum it up, people with an internal locus of control believe that their actions determine the rewards they get during their lives. Conversely, those with an external locus of control believe that their behavior doesn’t matter that much. Instead, they think that life’s rewards are outside of their control.
Your Locus of Control is important because…
Resilient People have an Internal Locus of Control.
In other words, Resilient people believe that they are in control of their lives. While these folks understand that they can’t always control what happens to them, they know that they can control their responses.
Having an internal locus of control makes a huge difference in our attitudes and the course of our lives. Fortunately, you can develop your internal Locus of Control. Here are three quick tips to consider:
CHOICE: Remember, You always have a choice.
No matter what happens, it is YOU who decides how you will cope. It is YOU who decides what resources you will seek out. It is YOU who decides the language you will choose to describe this challenging time.
TRUTH: By telling yourself the TRUTH
Saying “I have no choice” or “I can’t” isn’t honest. You always have a choice. You may not like the option available, but you do have a choice. At times you may have the opportunity to change a situation. At other times, your choice may be to accept the situation gracefully. No matter what, you choose.
Brainstorm: Brainstorm your choices
When you feel stuck, create a list of every possible course of action. Don’t judge your options, just scribble them down. This list will help to remind you of your choices and keeping you from feeling stuck. You’ll remember that even though there are things you cannot do, there are also things you can do.
When feeling overwhelmed and stuck, remember Viktor Frankl, who suffered from three years in horrific Nazi concentration camps and lost most of his family.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997)
STEP TWO: SHIFT YOUR PERSPECTIVE
Resilience people accept that life will always be full of difficulties. Because this is true, they understand that they need to be flexible and open to change. They don’t have a victim mentality. In other words, no self-pity, feeling victimize or look for someone to blame.
Instead, they look for the positive benefits of facing stressors. Recognizing that growth comes from experiences and mistakes, they look for actionable forward-moving steps. https://hbr.org/2018/02/to-handle-increased-stress-build-your-resilience
Kelly Mcgonigal’s research (see this TED talk) compared people with a positive attitude about stress to people who have a very negative attitude about stress.
Her research found that people with an equal amount of stressors are not equally affected in negative ways. Instead, only people with a negative outlook about stress have an increased risk of these adverse consequences (death, illness, etc.). In short: your perspective of your stress matters more than the number of stressors you experience.
In essence, Your perspective about stress affects how you experience it.
Your attitude matters. You can shift your perspective and grow your “resilient attitude” by being aware of the positive aspects of facing stressors. Understand that stress is a part of every life. Realize that stress enhances your ability to grow and get stronger.
When you shift your perspective, you change your perception. Changing your perspective is process. Therefore, with greater awareness and clarity about your power, you will better handle stress and strengthen your resilience.
Step Three: Relationships: Get support.
No man is an island.
People with low social support are more likely to develop depression in the presence of chronic stress. In fact, strong social support helps protect people against the harmful effects of stress. In addition, the brain of a stressed person has lower adverse chemical effects when they have high levels of strong social support.
We all know that when it comes to facing challenges, our friends help lighten the load. Resilient people are likely to have secure networks of social support. They also tend to cope well with stress and to stay healthier and happier throughout life.
Certain feelings and behaviors are signs indicating the need for prompt, professional help. Important warning signs are:
- Inability to sleep.
- Feeling down, depressed, hopeless, or helpless most of the time.
- Difficulty concentrating to the extent that it interferes with your studies, work, or home life.
- Using smoking, overeating, drugs, or alcohol to cope with difficult emotions.
- Negative or self-destructive thoughts or fears that you can’t control.
- Thoughts of death or suicide.
Seek Help if you are overwhelmed
If you feel that your resilience is crumbling, you should seek help without delay. NAMI is an essential national alliance that offers mental health support. https://www.nami.org/Support-Education
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline offers 24-hour telephone support a 1-800-273-8255. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Human beings are amazing creatures. We’ve mastered flight and traveled to the moon. We’ve developed language, writing, electricity, photography and the internet. Vaccines, music, wind and solar power, theory of relativity and quantum physics have all been created by us.
So, how is it that such intelligent creatures, still struggle with managing stress?
The good news is, we have the power to change. We can better manage our stress and increase our resilience through a mindful approach to life. Stress resilience is a process, a journey…not a destination.
You are braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.–Christopher Robin