These are stressful times. The world is changing all around us. There has been divisiveness in our nation and within our communities. The world is still in the grip of a pandemic. How can we cope with all this stress in ways that keep us healthy and sane, especially during the holiday season?
Resilience is the ability to adapt to change and to also persevere. It is the apparent paradox that is the middle way between chaos and rigidity. If we are only adaptable, there is no plan or clear course of action. All of our actions will seem to be simply reactions to the current fluctuation in the environment. On the other hand, if we try to persevere with our goals despite whatever is happening, the rigidity of adhering to old structures creates brittleness and the inability to respond to change.
Resilience and the Middle Path
Becoming fit to handle multiple changes and even adversity requires being able to find the middle path, nimbly adapting to change while remaining on course and guiding our lives toward greater depth and fulfillment. This is what resilience offers us.
People talk about stress a lot and often complain that stress drains their energy. Let’s be clear about what we mean when we talk about stress. What are five words that come to mind when you think of stress? Write them down before you go on reading and see how they fit with my definition of stress.
Resilience and Stressors
People sometimes define stress by the emotional and physical factors that create stressful situations, what we could call stressors. If you defined stress by referring to the people and situations that make you tense or upset, you are referencing stressors.
We are all wired, through the autonomic nervous system, to automatically tense up when we face something new or something that seems out of control. At a physical level, we register this as a threat. It is not a bad thing. In fact, tensing up and getting a rush of energy can be highly adaptive if we really are threatened physically. Tension helps us fight or flee, and more rigid muscles to armor our bodies to meet an aggressor.
Resilience and Tension
Some people define stress by the feeling of tension. If the best solution to your stressors is to physically fight or flee, or even freeze, you are probably not complaining about stress. The solutions to your problems are solved by running or fighting. But that’s not the case for most of us. Our threats are more psychological than physical.
For most people the problem with tension is in not being able to relax once a risk or threat has passed. Contemporary life can be a series of one challenge after another. Even though the autonomic nervous system is designed to relax once a risk or threat has passed, many of us are bombarded by problems and conflicts throughout the day.
We spilled hot coffee on ourselves first thing in the morning. The internet is sluggish and we cannot link into an important meeting. Children can’t complete their homework. Everyone misses being with their friends. The stressors are all around and the tension keeps building.
Resilience and Undischarged Tension
A third category of definitions of stress focuses on the symptoms of too much tension: tight shoulders or neck muscles, tightness in the stomach and gut, headaches and backaches.
Undischarged tension leads to lower concentration and lower productivity, increased anxiety and depression, and lowered immune system functioning that then causes susceptibility to colds, infections, high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and of course the coronavirus. Some physicians suggest that up to 70 – 90% of illness is stress related. We know we need to reduce stress: but how?
Given the pressures in the lives of many people, it is more productive to learn to build resilience rather than trying to avoid stressors. Habits of physical self care – like adequate sleep, a healthy diet, and sufficient exercise – are a good foundation.
Resilience and Healing
Traditional healers tell us that the body is made of the elements of the Earth and it is the life force of the Earth sustains the life force in the body. That is why herbs and essential oils can promote health and healing. Taking care of our physical bodies is a requirement for resilience.
When the body is out of balance, disease ensues. Rest, nutrition, and exercise to keep the systems working well help to keep our bodies healthy. They are a good and necessary beginning but are insufficient in themselves. As one client put it, “I knew how to eat better, I started running every day and I lost ten pounds. But how do I lose the ten pounds of stress that I still carry around?”
Resilience and Stress Hardiness
In addition to staying physically healthy, we need to consider emotional and cognitive factors that promote what is known as “stress hardiness,” or the capacity to thrive in the face of multiple challenges.
Thirty years ago, Dr. Suzanne Kobasa published results from an eight-year study of AT&T executives who had lost their jobs or were reassigned in the biggest downsizing event in U.S. history. Measuring the effects of these adverse conditions in terms of medical and psychological symptoms, the outcome showed two distinct groups.
The first group showed evidence of predictable increases in physiological and psychological symptoms, while the second group experienced either no changes or were even healthier and more robust than when the study began. Further research with the second group eventually identified four factors that distinguished them from their less adaptive colleagues.
Stress Hardiness and Commitment
The first factor that identified the stress hardy group was called COMMITMENT; the name is intended to imply commitment to a belief system. The importance of the belief system in stress hardiness is that it provides a sense of meaning and value to life experiences. With beliefs as the anchor, this group of people was not threatened by their changing circumstances but instead were open and curious about what was happening around them.
Interestingly, it is not so much the detail of the belief system that is important. The value of the belief system is that it provides a framework for understanding meaning and purpose. In other words, our ability to find meaning in a situation, however difficult it might be, relaxes tension. Without a sense of threat, we can take in more information and see the big picture with more clarity. That gives us the ability to gather information and be more creative in our problem solving.
Stress Hardiness and Control
The second factor is CONTROL. The stress hardy group had a strong sense that they could influence circumstances rather than feeling like victims. To have a personal sense of control is not the same as being in control.
This group could recognize the factors that were beyond their control and not waste time or effort trying to impact what was really beyond their scope of influence. They could focus on self-regulation rather than trying to control others, and used their energy and influence on the people and circumstances they could affect.
For all of us this kind of control is about finding the serenity to accept what we cannot change and having the courage to then change the things we can. And the wisdom to know the difference.
Stress Hardiness and Challenge
The third factor to distinguish stress hardy individuals was an attitude toward CHALLENGE that framed stressful experience as having positive potential. Members of the stress hardy group perceived new situations and even losses as opportunities rather than threats. In addition to welcoming change, members of this group would consistently underplay their personal qualities as the cause of their response and attribute positive factors as well to external sources such as assistance from unexpected sources.
Members of the stress hardy group were confident in their abilities, but tended to not be overly competitive in their approach to the challenge. These people welcomed new situations as opportunities to learn, to grow, and to develop on a personal level. As a result, they were able to turn difficulties to their advantage.
Stress Hardiness and Connectedness
After the results of Kobasa’s study were reported, Herbert Benson and his colleagues added a fourth factor from in their research. To conform with the previous three words beginning with “C” it was called CONNECTEDNESS. It is the ability to receive support from others through close relationships.
A close interpersonal connection provides opportunities to talk over concerns and feel the positive regard of another person. When that person listens with full attention and in a non-judgmental way, their presence can foster the release of tension as well as offering an objective perspective on the stressful situation.
During the restrictions of the COVID19 pandemic, opportunities to be with people, to be in groups, to hug and to share large group performances have all been curtailed. And almost everyone has been suffering from this loss.
What This Means for Us
Given what we have learned from Kobasa’s research and the numerous stress hardiness studies and training that have ensued since 1988, how can we apply these findings to facing the holidays in the midst of COVID-19?
COMMITMENT to a belief system that gives meaning to your experience invites you to ask yourself:
- What DO I believe about the meaning and purpose of my life?
- How might my present circumstances be part of my life’s purpose?
- What do I believe about a larger Being (such as God or Muhammed or Buddha nature) being present in my life and in the big picture?
- Can I trust that this Presence is functioning in this time of collective difficulty? If that is true, how does it change my view of what is happening in my life as well as in the lives of people around the United States and around the world?
CONTROL gives you the opportunity to clarify what in the present situation can you actually influence or change, and what is beyond your control. I may need to decide whether it is safe for myself and my loved ones to gather for the Thanksgiving holiday.
If it is not safe to gather – that is, if someone may unknowingly be contagious – then can I have the courage to set limits on what I will do with my family? Am I willing to be creative in making the holiday meaningful but also safe for everyone?
CHALLENGE invites us to welcome this unusual situation as having the potential to create new traditions, perhaps inviting widely scattered family members to participate in a virtual celebration.
Remember that new situations and even losses can be opportunities rather than threats. As an example, a group I usually visit in California in early December will be having a virtual gathering near the end of the year. We are sending out recipes and inviting people to prepare the same food so we can enjoy it “together” on Zoom. We will have small breakout groups to chat with different people throughout the gathering and we will also come together as a big group to share our wishes for the upcoming New Year. I’ll miss walking on the beach with my friends but I’m looking forward to having people from around the world join the celebration.
CONNECTEDNESS is certainly part of the plans just outlined. Rather then bemoaning being unable to be together in person, we can enjoy seeing each other in our homes and remembering to reach out to people we might not otherwise connect with during the holidays.
Hopefully 2020 will be a year unlike any others. Let’s learn from the experience. Instead of having expectations about what life should offer us, may we engage with what is at hand and let our hearts be open to gratitude.