The Resiliency Factor
Bouncing back from adversity can be the key to good health.
These days it seems that whenever medical science looks for the cause of some health problem—from colds to depression to heart attacks—the culprit is stress. Minimizing it has become a major preoccupation for anyone concerned with illness prevention and optimum health.
But what if the hazard that we call “stress,” attributed to external forces like work, relationships and responsibilities, isn’t to blame for many of our health woes? What if it’s merely a person’s reaction—or overreaction—to unavoidable consequences of modern life that can lead down the road to disease? What if all it took was for all of us to be more resilient, or able to spring back from and successfully adapt to adversity?
That’s exactly what proponents of a concept known as resiliency psychology are suggesting. They say that life in the 21st century will continue to be filled with increasing amounts of change, uncertainty and demands, and if you perceive it all as harmful “stress,” you—and only you—will be creating patterns of reaction within yourself that are ultimately unhealthy. Resiliency experts point to a growing body of research showing that people from all walks of life, young and old, possess the ability to bounce back stronger from all sorts of upheaval, trauma and crises—or can learn how to.
Think that’s just a bunch of psychobabble? Look at people like Oprah Winfrey or Bill Clinton, who achieved great success despite extremely difficult childhoods and relentless hardships.
“The challenge for every one of us is the internal experience of strain—that’s an individual thing, and it’s very much a matter of our interpretation of what is happening around us,” asserts Al Siebert, PhD, author of The Resiliency Advantage (Berrett-Koehler). “You have people blaming the world around them for their reaction to what’s going on. It’s our perception that determines whether we respond physiologically with agitation and adrenaline or just interact and cope effectively.” Studies show that people who cope best under trying circumstances believe they have a certain measure of control over their lives, as opposed to those who feel helpless and victimized.
Out of Control
When people deal with stress ineffectively, feeling overwhelmed and upset on a regular basis, a distinct biological reaction occurs: The sympathetic nervous system is overstimulated. In this ancient “fight or flight” response, which helped early man survive in hostile environments, hormones from the adrenal glands prepare the body for an emergency: Blood sugar is elevated, heart rate speeds up to pump blood to muscles for instant fighting or running, red blood cells become sticky to increase clotting if wounded, pupils widen, breathing becomes stronger and perspiration increases. At the same time, the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps repair and heal the body, shuts down as immune system functions decrease and digestion slows.
Folks who consistently react in an overheated manner can develop General Adaptation Syndrome (GAD), where the sympathetic nervous system is continuously aroused and the parasympathetic system is unable to heal. First coined by pioneering stress researcher Dr. Hans Selye, GAD can lead to high blood pressure, strokes, cardiovascular problems, ulcers and an eventual breakdown of the entire system if no relief occurs. “Unfortunately, a lot of people keep up the activities that constantly trigger the sympathetic nervous system, keep it going all the time, and then they try to take medications to counteract the effect of the constant sympathetic nervous system activity,” notes Siebert. “But there are a number of principles that we can learn over a period of time about how to remain calm, learn a lesson from a bad experience, and give people permission to do what they do and not get too upset about it.”
Siebert says that starts with making a conscious choice to decrease negative experiences while increasing positive ones—something he coins Level One resiliency (at Level Five, people learn how to calm themselves in the face of great misfortune). “I have a person make two lists: one of things that is upsetting them, and the second of things that they really enjoy doing,” he relates. “Then pick one thing on the list of things that are bothering them and develop some kind of plan to minimize the effect: either to stay away from it, make it go away, minimize time in contact with it—and if none of those three things work, to just decide to stop letting it get to you.” Actively pursuing things that you enjoy to do—simple as that sounds—also promotes resiliency and optimal health. But the key mantra is to know thyself: Physically active people will rejuvenate with a vigorous workout, but more introverted, cerebral types would better benefit from reading a book by themselves.
The key to being resilient, however, is not just to enjoy more downtime—the most important thing is to change the way you view stress. After all, a moderate amount of pressure, according to resiliency experts, is healthy (Selye called it “eustress,” literally, good stress). Without periods of strain, people become weak and deteriorate. Furthermore, your effort to bounce back and recover from setbacks can lead to developing strengths and abilities you didn’t even know you were capable of. Now that’s a good reason to get stressed out.
For more information on resiliency, visit www.resiliencycenter.com.