Build Your “Toughness” and Become More Resilient

In the late 1980s, a Professor from the University of Nebraska published an important article on something he called “toughness”. He pointed out that the prevalent belief of experts was that the “arousal” that is stimulated by stress is just plain BAD. (This word “arousal” in ordinary parlance usually refers to sex, but here it means having the brain highly activated and the body prepared for action, the kind of action that enables you to confront a threat and either escape or defeat it).

Dienstbier summarized a wide range of research showing that this arousal could damage you, but could also toughen you. In some cases it can even be exhilarating and good for your health. This is where the technical sense of “arousal” and the sexual sense of it converge. During sex the body responds in many of the same ways it responds to threats, for example, with fast and strong heartbeats and elevated blood pressure. It also recovers quickly and fully. Quick and full recovery is at the heart of toughness and resilience.

If you do not recover, and have high arousal over long periods with few times at rest, THAT is damaging.

So if you are a person who suffers from constant distress, what can you do? Here are a few examples.

  1. Develop the Knowledge and Skills that Enable You to Recover promptly from Stress for example, learn how to relax deeply.
  2. Practice some form of meditation.
  3. Exercise regularly, and include aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, or cycling.

Just click the links and you will find instructions how to do each of the listed techniques.

Further Possibilities: Exposure Training

Dienstbier’s work focused attention on the key role of recovery from stress, but that is not all it did. It also led us to see how valuable exposure to stressors could be. Being exposed to stress from which you can recover promptly will make you physiologically tougher. This is exactly what we do when we engage in regular exercise that is moderate.

We can do the same sort of thing with just about any kind of stressor. For example, most people find public speaking very stressful, and many of them join Toastmasters, where they regularly give speeches to groups of people who are also working to develop their public speaking skills.

Cognitive Reappraisal

Two things interact to produce stress reactions. First is the event itself, and second is our interpretation of the event. The interpretation can be at least as important as the event. Dienstbier makes use of a well-known model of stress reactions (Lazarus and Folkman). Their view is that we make two appraisals, a ”primary appraisal” and a “secondary appraisal.” Primary is an appraisal of the level of threat the stressor presents. Secondary is an appraisal of the resources you have to cope with the stressor.

If you judge that a stressor is beyond what you can manage, you are facing a threat. If you judge that you can handle the stressor, you are dealing with a challenge. And challenges can be opportunities to toughen yourself, and maybe even have fun.

Appraisals need not be set in concrete. They are, after all, in our minds. A good deal of research has been focused on teaching people to reappraise life events, and it turns out that these reappraisals can really improve performance.

To clarify the concept of reappraisal, imagine a student who does poorly on an important exam. The student interprets this failing as evidence that s/he is “stupid” and “hopeless”.

Now suppose the student is guided to consider that the failure was due to lack of skills of note taking, studying, and/or test taking. The new appraisal implies that there are things s/he can do to perform better the next time. Now a threat has been changed to a challenge.  And dealing with it can make the student tougher.

Cognitive reappraisal has a wide range of applications. Good research has shown that is helpful in dealing with PTSD, fighting food temptations, reducing negative feelings, and reducing anxiety. And this is very far from a complete list.

We will be saying more about cognitive reappraisal in future posts.

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Lessons for the Old and the Young on Recovering from Nasty Challenges

Elderly people can have devastating consequences, including death, from injuries such as breaking bones. Broken hips are hard for any of us to deal with, but often can be fatal to elders.

Recently research on the factors that predict recovery after falls for the elderly has shown that those who were more fit before the fall were significantly more likely to recover.

Our take on this is that elderly people who have a lifestyle that makes them more fit are more resilient in the face of mortal threats.

Many countries, including ours, have populations that are increasingly older. But if you take away from this recent finding that you should stay fit as you grow older, you are right, but you are, at the same time, missing the heart of the matter.

The main thing to take away is that the more you, whether old or yourng, cultivate your resilience, the more likely you are to come out well after any of life’s nasty challenges, and the more likely you are to recover a good life.

Nietszche said “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger”.  Another, less dramatic and less poetic, way to phrase that is, if you have developed resilience skills, you are more likely to grow strong after nasty challenges instead of being taken down by them. And this is true no matter how old you are, or what kind of damage you are facing.

The take-home message is “start NOW to build your physical, and mental resilience”. It will help you through all the phases of your life.

This is YOUR LIFE we are talking about.

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Resilience and Grit

This post was based on our reactions to a YouTube Ted Talk by Angela Duckworth on the topic of grit. It is best to take a look at it and then come back to our discussion.

The key idea in Dr. Duckworth’s talk is that grit is more important than IQ in predicting academic success. It is also linked to other benefits such as being happier and more satisfied with your life. Anything that can make people more successful, happier, and more satisfied with their lives deserves attention.

Given the apparent benefits of grit, you may well want to know how much of it you have. You can find out your own level of grit by taking the grit test Dr. Duckworth developed. It is here.

You might also want to increase your grit. So far, there does not seem to be a clear path to developing more grit. We suspect that a major part of the path lies in increasing your resilience.

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More Resilience Training Can Produce Richer, More Powerful Results.

We have often pointed out, maybe even emphasized, how easy it is to learn techniques that are helpful in resisting and recovering from stress.

The techniques are not only easy, but are typically pleasant and comforting. Most resilience training methods make you feel somewhere in the range of good to very good.

Unfortunately, too many people practice for a while, but then get embedded in the demands of ordinary life and never get to see how rich the benefits might be if they continued over the long term.

Take deep relaxation as an example. A large majority of people who try basic methods of deep relaxation find the states they induce both useful and pleasant.

They should consider persisting at least a little longer. For some methods of relaxation and calming, there is evidence that practice can continue to improve, even over many years.

A striking example is the work of a Japanese researcher, Tomio Hirai. He studied changes in brain waves that take place when people practice Zen Meditation. (It is called “Zazen” and is essentially identical to the currently popular “Mindfulness Meditation”).

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How Much Training Does It Take to Develop a Resilience Skill?

Our core purpose at OnResilience is to explain how and why you should train to be more resilient. We want to help people learn techniques that can help them get through difficult situations and come out able to at least stay in the game, and maybe also having learned things that make them more effective in handling difficulties to come.

Debbie and I both know from published research, our own personal experiences, and our work as trainers and therapists that the techniques we teach will help most people to deal more effectively with painful, threatening situations .

A fortunate few can get benefits from just a few training sessions. But most people need more help, and, especially, more practice than that. However, it is safe to say that no one who neglects practice will reach their potential even if they are in the above-mentioned “fortunate few”.

Why do so many people fail to practice resilience-inducing procedures?

A possible reason is that people in technically advanced parts of the world have become accustomed to treatments that require little effort. Most of us have gotten prescriptions that quickly relieved us of distressing diseases, and we may tend now to expect a quick, almost effortless resolution to any of our problems. The old Alka-Seltzer line, “Relief is just a swallow away”, says it all.

That “take a pill” model is usually not a good one for making changes in the way the mind, or, if you prefer, the brain, influences the body. Nor does it work particularly well if we need to maneuver our way through complicated situations, such as a troubled marriage. In these situations, many factors influence what happens, and these factors may include some that can be influenced by chemicals, but we are far from having pills, injections, or surgical procedures that do much to turn complex situations from bad to good.

For the most part, neither can listening to a lecture or two, or practicing mind-body techniques a few times.

To get the most out of resilience training you need “practice, practice, and practice”.

But many, many people just do not see any room in their available time to fit practice in.

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Facing Situations That You May Not Be Able to Handle? Develop a Problem Solving Attitude.

Having a “problem solving attitude” is an important influence on resilience. This attitude is a form of positivity, which is a well-known key to resilience. It is a facet of the first and most influential factor influencing resilience. It is linked to “positivity”, which is a key to resilience.

What, exactly is a “problem-solving attitude”? The best way to explain this is to describe what people with this attitude are likely to believe about life’s challenges.

People with this kind of attitude tend to react to mistakes by trying to figure out how to avoid them in the future.

You might say, “Isn’t that what everybody does?”

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Optimism and Vigilance

Our experience has been that people who are optimistic, even those who strike us as unduly optimistic, lead more satisfying and fulfilling lives than those who are not optimistic. Provided they do not push too hard on reasonable limits of optimistic prediction, optimsts seem to do better than most people.

Furthermore, there is a lot of scientific evidence that optimism results in improvements in many aspects of life. (for example in work performance and physical health).

On the other hand, a major study of what leads to a life well-lived, the Harvard Grant Study, indicates that “Anticipation”(pages 114-116) is a factor that leads to a better life. Anticipation is looking at a wide range of risks and benefits to prepare for most problems that might come up and planning ahead to minimize the impact of those risks.

Yet, anticipation can go too far. One form of that is called “hyper-vigilance”, and it can be very damaging. It is a known aspect of post-traumatic stress disorder.

A major aspect of hyper-vigilance is an extreme form of anticipation. People who have experienced intense trauma, such as multiple military deployments, are often so vigilant that even a few hours of sleep can terrify them because they cannot be vigilant when they are asleep.

So, pushing anticipation too far is a serious problem but is extra optimism also a problem?

A major barrier to thinking about such issues is the tendency for psychologists and self-help gurus to break things down into “black or white” categories.  For example, “optimism and positivity are good”, but “wariness and pessimism are bad”.

Christine Olmstead’s comments on yin and yang drew our attention to a Buddhist view that too much Yin can become Yang. If you are not familiar with the contrast between Yin and Yang, click here for a quick explanation.

This Buddhist view is consistent with that of Aristotle, who argued that vice results when a virtue is overdone or underdone.

Optimism, when taken too far, may take the form of having unrealistic expectations or even of delusional grandiosity or mania.

What we think works is optimism tempered by anticipation. That means looking on the bright side of things while also adjusting your expectations by carefully monitoring the situation you are in, and, in particular, balancing the payoffs you can get from your choices against the losses that may be entailed when you act on them.

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Stop Doing Things That Make You More Vulnerable and Less Resilient

Are you doing things that impair your resilience? Here are some things that can reduce resilience.

  1. Don’t develop skills that enable you to sooth, calm, and comfort yourself. (Many, if not most, of our posts on this blog explain what those skills are and how to develop them.) The basic ones are very easy to learn.
  2. Don’t fail to apply your resilience skills when they are needed. (You know, “too busy”, “too tired”, “I’ll do this tomorrow”). Here are some methods that can help you to get past those excuses and really use the resilience skills that you have.
  3. Don’t underestimate the importance of other people to increasing your resilience (not to mention your health and your success!). For example, be aware of what you may lose by directing your anger and frustration toward supporters. Dumping your distress on supportive others may tempt them to give up or even direct spite at you. For your own sake, you should guide and encourage them. Let them know how they can help, and even give them pep talks.
  4. Don’t do things that increase your distress. For example, inwardly talking to yourself in ways that pump up your anger at people you see as having treated you unfairly. Or selling yourself on the idea that things that distress you make you a helpless victim, who lacks any control over her/his reactions.
  5. Don’t numb your distressed feelings with alcohol or other drugs without even trying to find ways to control your own reactions with skills instead of chemicals.
  6. Don’t allow your routine life to become chaotic without developing at least a few predictable routines. Simplifying your life makes it easier to cope with potentially distressing situations that inevitably come by.

 

In Contrast, Here Is How Resilient People See It and Do It.

  • I frequently take good care of, calm, and comfort myself.
  • My typical reaction to a bad situation is to think and do things that make me feel calmer and better.
  • I know some things I can do to make me feel better when I am upset, and I usually do those things when I am under stress.
  • I have many predictable routines in my life that give me comfort.
  • I know that people who try to help me through hard times need some encouragement, and I do my best to give it to them.
  • I often get to enjoy myself.
  • I have learned enough about self-calming and self-soothing to recover from challenges by the time I face the difficulties of the next day.

To use an already overused saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. If things have gotten out of control for you, you will have to take toddler steps toward shifting to a more resilient way of living. Why not work toward developing skills and routines that help make your life less stressful and more successful?

And for heaven’s sake don’t lead with your chin and do things that turn up the intensity of your stress.

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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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