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).
The Professor, Richard 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 are 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.
- Develop the Knowledge and Skills that Enable You to Recover promptly from Stress for example, learn how to relax deeply.
- Practice some form of meditation.
- 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.
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.