Enjoy Your Life Every Day, With the Bonus of Building Your Resilience.

We have a friend who gave up a tenured position as a full professor, with no assurance that a comparable position would open up in his new location. (with a full professorship, the pay and benefits are quite good though not great, but it is very hard to fire you. It takes many years of high-level performance to get a full professorship.)

Nevertheless, he moved to the West Coast to be close to his family. In particular, his sister was important to him.

As it turned out, he had to make do with insecure and relatively low-paying part-time teaching positions, and to drive many miles to their locations to accumulate a viable income. It took many years for him to find a stable, full-time position.

Faced with this kind of situation, most of us would, understandably, have spent a good deal of time worrying, fretting, and complaining, and regretting. Not him.

I asked him one time how he stayed so upbeat through all of this. He said, “I never let a day go by without doing something I enjoy”.

He is a master teacher. He taught the most challenging courses in his field, the ones that often result in a lot of anger on the part of the students because the content is hard to understand, and the teachers are often insensitive to the barriers that get in their way.

Nevertheless he was the only teacher in higher education we have ever known who got standing ovations at the end of at least some of his classes.

I asked him what it was about his teaching that produced such results. His answer was that he only taught in ways that allowed him to enjoy the teaching process.

So our theme in this post is that enjoying yourself regularly can improve your effectiveness, but also make your life more gratifying, and also give your resilience a boost.

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Recovery from Stress: Use Resilience Resources You Already Have to Calm and Sooth Yourself.

Your mental and biological reactions to stress are attempts to help you survive and go on to live a rich life. Stress left unchecked can destroy you. On the other hand, experiencing a level of stress from which you can fairly quickly recover can even make you stronger and more resilient.

The often disturbing mental and biological reactions to stress can be hard to take, but they reflect the best solutions you, and even your biological ancestors, have been able to come up with to deal with life’s challenges.

If you cannot imagine that the stress reactions are helpful and adaptive, think of regular exercise. Exercise is good for you, but is also stressful. It is good for you because it is stressful, and you can handle it.

When you exercise, you trigger basic aspects of the classic “fight or flight response”. But if you choose your exercise wisely, you can recover quickly and fully, and your mind and body will eventually change in ways that enable you to take that level of stress in your stride.

If you crank the exercise stress up slowly you are likely to improve your resilience. If you push yourself too much, you can expect to exceed the protective influence of your current resilience skills. If you keep that up, you will eventually experience some kind of breakdown.

On the other hand if you pace yourself carefully, you can improve how quickly and fully you recover from stress. You can become more resilient.

We only mean to use exercise as an example of controlled stress. Though exercise is, indeed, a valuable way to deal with stress, that is not our main message in this post.

Our main point is that, unless stress is extreme and/or perpetuated for a long time, whether you know how to calm down stress reactions, to return to your normal baseline quickly and fully is far more important  than the stress itself to determine whether stress leaves you stronger or breaks you.

In the last few posts, we have focused on techniques that have been tested in people’s lives sometimes for centuries, and have also been shown to be effective when tested scientifically. Specifically, we have explained how to do mantra meditation, and how to practice “loving kindness”. Both of these have been shown to make for a better life.

Before you can use these methods, there is a “learning curve” you must go through to use them. We strongly advocate that you learn how to use them. But there are also methods that most people already know how to use, but that are often not given the respect they deserve. We have described some of these methods here. They include things that do not require you to learn new skills. We derived them by keeping track, over more than a decade, of publications that show how ordinary people, without any special training,  deal with stress.

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A Path Beyond Self-Criticism to Loving Kindness

One of the keys to feeling and functioning better lies in how we talk to ourselves. By changing our self-talk, we can alter both our feelings and our behavior. This is not mere opinion. Psychological research has confirmed it for many years, even decades.

Many people believe that talking to themselves in nasty, critical ways will keep them in line, and somehow make them safe and prevent criticism from others. But it is in fact very damaging to your resilience, and is at the heart of our second most important factor influencing resilience.

We have already done a number of posts on reducing self-criticism (for example,click here), so there is no need to repeat ourselves. In brief, you have to become more aware of your self-critical remarks, then challenge them and devise more supportive remarks that are closer to the truth and/or more useful ways of thinking about yourself and the world.

This second factor was a problem because it had to be scored in “reverse”. That means you are less resilient the higher you score on that factor. When you criticize and tear yourself down, you make your reactions to stress worse, and that is the opposite of resilience.

We have long searched for the positive pole of this factor. When research on self-compassion came to our attention, it seemed to be that positive pole. But, more recently, we have realized that reducing self-criticism, which is very valuable, is, nevertheless, only a step in the direction of self-compassion.

To be compassionate toward yourself you have to go beyond reducing self-criticism and learn to be loving, caring, and understanding toward yourself.

In this series of posts, we are focused on taking steps beyond mere “sweet talk”, showing specific methods for getting to where you need to go.

For this post, we have chosen the Buddhist method of developing loving kindness toward yourself, then including others, then more and more of the beings in our world. This has worked for meditators for centuries, but there have also been quite a few experimental tests supporting the idea that it works.

The Buddha emphasized that you need only believe things that, when you try them, work out in your own life. So give this a try and decide for yourself.

We owe this video to the capabilities and generosity of Sharon Salzberg. (Expect a pretty long time lag before the video shows).



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A Simple Way to Sooth and Comfort Yourself.

(Oops! This was supposed to be uploaded earlier, before the previous post.)

Our last post discussed listening to “sweet talk” and contrasted it with actually learning to be more resilient. This post will discuss self-soothing, which is a way to become more calm and shut down your physiological stress response.

Right off, we can tell you that self-soothing inevitably includes shifting the physiological reactions in your body toward what Harvard Cardiologist, Herbert Benson, called “the Relaxation Response”, and away from the “Fight or Flight Response” (a central physiological response when you are under stress).

Self-Soothing also primes your mind to become more aware of good things that are happening in your everyday life.

There are many tested techniques for shifting from stress to a relaxation response. Benson tested a method of meditation that was modeled after “Transcendental Meditation”, which is a component of Yoga.

He tested his method and found no physiological evidence that it was inferior to Transcendental Meditation itself.

Transcendental Meditation and Benson’s technique are both forms of “mantra” meditation. A mantra is a word or sound that is the focus of your meditation. A mantra that is familiar to many people from the West is “OM” (also spelled “AUM”). In Transcendental meditation, you are given a personal mantra, but Benson simply used the word “one” for everyone.

Here is a simple way of doing mantra meditation:

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Some Common Ways People Make Stress Worse

Rather than soothing themselves, it is very common for people to react to stress in ways that make things worse. Here are two key reactions that amplify instead minimizing reactions to stress:

  1. To treat yourself in ways that increase the stress or undermine your ability to cope with it. Usually this involves exaggerating the power of the stressful event or blaming and attacking yourself, thus turning your capacity for aggression against yourself at the very time when you need to hear a supportive, helpful voice, even if it is your own voice.
  2. To treat people who are likely sources of help in ways that lead them to withdraw their support, or even to strike back at you and pile on another source of stress.

There are two main ways you can treat yourself that make things worse.  You can:

1.            Catastrophize

2.            Attack yourself with criticism

In this post we will discuss the first of these ways, those involved in how you treat yourself. We will also explain what you can do to avoid undermining of yourself.

In later posts we will cover the issues about 1. overcoming any tendency you may have to criticize yourself, and 2. Learning how to help your supporters support you.

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Listening to Sweet Talk versus Resilience Training.

Debbie and I often discuss our concerns about the quality of research on resilience. But we are even more troubled by guidance from sources that make no distinction between advice based on well-established facts and advice that is based on mere opinion, advice that is merely “sweet talk”.

What is sweet talk? It’s hard to give it an air-tight definition, but you can recognize it if:

  • It briefly makes you feel hopeful, but is soon forgotten.
  • It doesn’t give you a “recipe” for how you can implement its ideas or suggestions.
  • It is short on evidence that it will work. It may be empty claims, opinions (or even rehashes of other peoples’s opinions) that are only loosely based on evidence.
  • It doesn’t show you specific ways you can apply its suggestions to your own life.
  • It gives you little or no guidance about how to develop skills that make you more resilient.

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Resilience In and Out

Aaron Antonovsky taught us that stress is so present everywhere that it’s enough to make anyone sick. This means that the biggest payoff in dealing with stress comes from developing more effective ways of viewing and managing stress.

At the same time, he also acknowledged the importance of our physical and social environments in determining our well-being. He believed that by experiencing various sources of support outside of us, in our families and communities, we eventually develop inner attitudes that enable us to deal with life’s challenges on our own.

For example, he pointed out that the very young have to rely on caretakers support, and only in their teens acquire the inner resources that enable resilient adults to handle many potentially damaging experiences. A Baby’s sources of resilience are largely outside in the caretakers. They slowly become inner resources.

Antonovsky’s research, from his years at Harvard and later at David Ben-Gurion University in Israel focused on the outer limits of human stress. At first he studied the poor, who have very little power to change their circumstances.

Later he studied those who survived Nazi concentration camps, who faced boundless animosity and had very little control over what would happen externally in their lives.

In this post we consider some ways in which what is inside interacts with what is outside to make resilience effective. The Biblical story of David and Goliath provides a good example of how what is outside enables inner resilience qualities to be expressed.

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Can We Make Ourselves Biologically Younger?

Some years ago we became aware of the important role of telomeres in aging, and the role of stress in speeding up the aging process. Telomeres are genetic components that are linked to biological aging. Usually, the older you are the shorter your telomeres become.

What did this have to do with resilience? Well, resilience controls stress, and it turns out that higher levels of stress result in increased shortening of telomeres. So your calendar age is not the only determinant of how old your cells are. Stress is a highly significant influence.

In fact, women who reported being highly stressed were biologically, as indexed by telomere length, about ten years older than those who did not report high stress.

In one of our early resilience workshops, one person in the group asked an obvious question that hadn’t occurred to us. “Is there anything that can enable us to lengthen our telomeres?” We paused, and had to say that we did not know.

Since that time, a good deal of research has shown that we can indeed lengthen our telomeres through lifestyle changes.

We were working on our usual exhaustive examination of the scientifically respectable evidence that people can lengthen their telomeres when we discovered the following interview of Dr. Dean Ornish, who recently completed a study on how the telomeres can be lengthened. We decided to re-post his video, which does a very good job of explaining what we need to do to lengthen our telomeres. We weren’t likely to improve, in a short post, on what he says in this interview. And it isn’t just a promotion of his own work; he talks about a wide range or research pointing in the same direction as his.

It appears that telomeres can indeed be lengthened, and that well established healthy lifestyle changes can produce the lengthening.

Naturally attempts are being made to develop a kind of “Fountain of Youth” pill that can lengthen telomeres. We would recommend that such pills be viewed with great caution. It’s one thing to do things we already know are good for you and thus lengthen telomeres and quite another to take a new pill that needs lengthy testing.

As we have pointed out previously in this blog, the body is a highly complex, interactive ecosystem. Change one thing and many other unpredictable changes are likely to occur. The enzyme, telomerase stimulates growth of telomeres. But there is a lot of telomerase in certain malignant tumors. So who can say what kinds of side effects might result from artificial tampering?

On the other hand, sensible exercise, eating a healthy diet, learning to live peacefully with others, and calming ourselves through meditation have been around for centuries, and we know that their side effects improve lives


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Recovery and Adaptation

I think it would be hard for anyone who spent even a few years probing deeply into research on stress to deny that it can really damage a person, both psychologically and physically. Reactions to stress are not just “in your head”. They are palpable.

Stress is far more important to health than most people think. And the more stress there is in a person’s life, the more likely it is that she or he will become ill.

But the load of stress people can handle without getting sick varies a lot from one person to another. What are the differences between people who are stress resistant and those who are highly vulnerable to stress? And is there some way to guide the more vulnerable people to become more stress resistant?

Once you shift to these questions, you are moving from an emphasis on stress to an emphasis on resilience. We made that shift several decades ago. Our approach has been to identify how resilient people deal with stress, and then to ask how more vulnerable people might learn to use those patterns of resilience.

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Why Do So Many Successful People Praise Failure?

Nobody wants to fail, or, worse, BE a failure. Failure is associated with shame, financial ruin, living a harder life, diminished status, not being able to contribute to your family’s resources.…

Yet, we often see and hear what appears to be praise for failure. What could this be about?

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