In early 2017, stress levels were reported by the American Psychological Association to be on the rise in America for the first time in a decade. As the year has progressed, Mother Nature is reminding us of her power. Hurricane winds, floods, earthquakes, and wildfires forged a path of heightened stress levels for tens of millions of people in North America. The ability to recover from high stress is crucial. Stress resilience is key. The good news is that resilience can be learned.
The ability to navigate in the face of threats, adversity, trauma, tragedy, and to recover from significant stressors, is at the heart of building resilience. Over two decades I have worked in an integrative health setting where reducing stress is a cornerstone of supporting healing and healthier habits. When the wildfires broke out in California, my own capacity for resiliency was put to the test. I had just arrived in Costa Rica on a harrowing flight into the eye of a fierce tropical storm that would become hurricane Nate. Sections of roads to my destination had collapsed. My daughter in Budapest then texted me. “Mom, do you know about the fast moving wildfires near our Russian River house?” A wave of fear and powerlessness engulfed me. I found it hard to think. My heart quickened its pace. I realized my reaction could spiral into a full blown panic attack. What could I do? It was time for me to walk my talk.
I will get to what I did, however, a little background on stress and resilience may be helpful. At the most basic level, there are two components to the catch-all word “stress” that are not at all the same. First, there is the stressor. Then, there is our personal stress response. The boss has issued a deadline you cannot possibly meet. The stressor. You perceive a threat. Your mind races. “I might get fired! How will I pay the bills?” You slump down in your chair. A headache begins. You just want to get out of there. The stress response.
The human mind is keenly alert to perceived threats: Avoid danger! Survive!
Perception drives behavior. We all know that person who stays cool and calm under pressure, and the person who falls apart. Jack can’t find his smart phone. He retraces his steps, feeling increasingly agitated. His face turns red and he yells at his wife. “Why can’t you stop whatever you’re doing and help me?” His stress response. Chelsea can’t find her smart phone. She retraces her steps, thinking in her head “It must be somewhere here. I just need to slow down for a minute and figure out where I set it down.” Her resilient stress response.
Our brain-body stress response is hard-wired to protect us from the normal demands of life as well as from predators and natural disasters. Fleeing a forest fire. Playing dead as the bear approaches. Fiercely defending our tribe against attack. Directed by the brain, an alarm system in the body is activated. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, is awakened in the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys.
What happens when the danger is over? What should happen is that the brain perceives “danger over” and we return to pre-stress levels. Psychologist Herbert Benson coined the term relaxation response to describe the body’s ability to release chemicals and brain signals to return to homeostasis, a state of relaxation.
In our complex world, many stressors are psychological in nature. A small region of our brain keeps alert for danger. “It’s not over yet. Stay vigilant!” Worries about work, finances, health. Conflicts in relationships. Loneliness. Sleep deprivation. Negative news. The problem is that these kinds of stressors may not have a clear “beginning” and “ending”. Too often they pervade our daily life. Valuable energy that might otherwise go to productive work, academic performance, or a strong immune system is tied up with energy-consuming stress response.
While surveys find that a majority of adults in America experience high stress most days, the annual “Stress in America” report by the American Psychological Association (APA) actually found that stress in American life was gradually decreasing over the last decade. The tide was slowly ebbing. Then came the presidential election primaries. The results of the APA report in early 2017 poll show a statistically significant increase in stress for the first time since the survey was first conducted in 2007. A majority of Republicans (59 percent) and Democrats (76 percent) said the future of our nation was a significant source of stress for them. Of people with more than a high school education, 53 percent report the election outcome as stressful, compared with 38 percent of those with a high school education or less. In addition, the percentage of Americans who feel stressed about acts of terrorism increased from 51 percent to 59 percent from August 2016 to January 2017.
Retraining the brain to resiliency
Persistent stress too often undermines health, quality of life and time for what matters. Retraining the brain to build resilience needs to be purposeful (mindful) while utilizing interventions supported by sound empirical evidence. When in the presence of a stressor, how are we responding in terms of our thoughts and feelings? How are we acting? What sensations do we have in our body? Are these responses useful to us or not?
Incrementally, we can learn how to flexibly navigate our stress experiences consistent with what we value. This process is resilience.
While it takes learning new strategies and practice for the brain to change, there are steps you can take right now. Here is how I re-activated my resilient stress response when I heard the news that my beloved home in the Sonoma wine country might burn down.
First, I took a few moments to be mindfully aware of what was going on in the present moment.
* I sat down in a quiet place outside. I exhaled.
* I consciously reflected on how I was feeling. (Afraid)
* I took a moment to be aware of how my body was reacting to the news.
* I reflected “These feelings of dread are not helpful!”
Then, I consciously decided to help myself to flexibly-navigate the experiences I was having:
* I reflected on those with whom I have caring relationships.
* I consciously decided to consider what really matters to me. (Health and love)
* I remembered that loss of a house is “stuff”. Stuff can be replaced.
* I thought about what I could do right now. (I notified my tenants of the danger.)
* I reached out to a few close friends by email.
* I decided to do something I like, so I took a walk on a beach. Never mind the rain.
* I ate a healthy dinner and drank plenty of water.
Much of my self-care took place within a matter of minutes. Coupled with a walk on the beach, I felt much calmer within 20 minutes. My energy did not feel like it was being consumed by the stress response. I could feel compassion for the plight of others less fortunate than myself. I could think about what to do next.
Although we are all challenged by the stressors and hyper-stimulation of contemporary life, learning to be more resilient is an achievable set of skills, balancing our response to stressors with psychological flexibility and efficient return to homeostasis.
Not only can resilience be learned, but new research shows that resilience skills can be learned online, potentially making it available to millions of people at affordable prices. Mindfulness training is making a significant contribution to stress reduction, along with strategies adapted from cognitive behavioral therapy and traditional meditation.
There is no better time than the present to embrace resiliency in service of living the life you value with optimum health. Helping health providers and individuals have the best stress resilience training tools at their fingertips is our goal at StressPal.