Building resilience means experiencing stress and recovery, which are widely misunderstood. A first step is to let go of destructive myths. This is an excerpt from Nick Arnett’s upcoming book, Stress Into Strength: Resilience Routines for Warriors, Wimps and Everybody in Between.
Myth 1 — Stress is toxic and reveals weakness.
Thinking of stress as “toxic” or a problem to avoid is bad for you. Life is hard. Feeling stress is normal and unavoidable — and that’s okay. Outside of truly traumatic events, stress is necessary; we need to strive and we are unhappy when we don’t. Feeling stress means that you are rising to a challenge. It means you care. When you face a challenge or threat, there is nothing unhealthy about feeling anxious, tense, nervous, pounding heart, rapid breathing and so forth. As you’ll see, natural stress reactions are not only helpful, but essential to your health and strength.
You can take on high-stress work, relationships, missions, and other challenges without negative consequences because stress isn’t the problem, it is stress without sufficient recovery. Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right — “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In 2012, a research report from the University of Wisconsin dropped a bombshell on the idea of toxic stress. It looked at 30,000 U.S. adults who had filled out a health questionnaire eight years earlier, to see who lived and who died. As you might expect, people who said they believe that stress affects health, who also reported medium or high stress, were far more likely to have died. However, people who said they do not believe that stress affects health lived the longest, even if they reported high stress!
Stress happens when something you care about is at stake. It’s not a sign to run away – it’s a sign to step forward.Kelly McGonigal
Fear of stress led to the myth that we should avoid it. That’s wrong. It’s like avoiding exercise because there’s a chance you’ll be injured. Without the regular stress of exercise, your muscles would atrophy and your bones would become brittle. Acceptance of stress avoidance has led to understandable, but ineffective ideas such as “trigger warnings” and “micro-aggressions,” which counter-productively shift ownership of emotions away from the person having the stress reaction.
I used to think that trigger warnings were a good idea. About a year after the 9/11 attacks, a friend sent me a digital slide show with a poem praising first responders. One of the photos showed people falling – jumping – to their deaths from the World Trade Center. I became angry.
“I wish he’d warned me about those pictures. I hate those pictures. I never want to see them again. He should have told me they were in there.”
Dave, my friend and business partner, said, “I can see why that would really bother you.”
Huh? I didn’t know what he meant.
“That Easter fire on the South Side.”
A giant light bulb lit up. Decades earlier, on an Easter Sunday during a large apartment fire in Pittsburgh, a rescue went badly, and a man fell about 30 feet to his death right in front of me. I’ll spare further details, but it was a terrible, unforgettable day. Except I had forgotten, sort of. Although the 9/11 pictures instantly provoked a stress reaction, I was blind to the connection. Dave, one of the few people I had ever told about the awful accident, could easily see it. That’s the power of social support. His insight started me down a long path of healing.
Today, when I’m triggered, I acknowledge it, take a deep breath and remind myself that it is a signal that I have something to process. I still become frustrated at how much work is sometimes required. Talking, writing and therapy, over several years, including an intense conversation with the victim’s son, who I hadn’t realized was rescued shortly before I arrived, eventually brought me to a point where I can talk about the Easter Fire without tears.
Fear of stress will stop you from showing up for life. It leads you away from health, strength and resilience. Sometimes we fall down, fail, or have our hearts broken, but there’s nothing weak or “toxic” about those stresses, as long as you get what you need to recover and grow.
Feeling stress is not a sign of weakness, even though it may reveal the limits of your strength. The world record for weightlifting is 1,067. You wouldn’t call the record-setter “weak” because he can’t lift 1,068 lbs.! Yet we often talk and behave as if feeling any effect of stress, or any need for recovery, reveals weakness.
All the commercials on TV today are for antidepressants, for Prozac or Paxil. And they get you right away. “Are you sad? Do you get stressed, do you have anxiety?” “Yes, I have all those things! I’m alive!”Ellen Degeneres
Periodic, appropriate stress, followed by recovery, stimulates health, strength and growth. This is true for more than just muscles. It applies to your immune system, hormone levels, emotions and thoughts. Avoiding all stress is exactly like avoiding all physical exercise — it weakens you.
This pattern — health and growth stimulated by experiencing the right amount of stress and recovery — shows up in many cliches: “necessity is the mother of invention,” “no pain, no gain,” “adversity builds character,” “pain is weakness leaving the body,” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Without stress, no living creature would ever adapt, develop or grow. We need regular stress and recovery to grow and stay strong, healthy, flexible and resilient. People who don’t take on challenges become weak, sick, bored, and unhappy.
In other words, to gain strength for resilience, you must step out of your comfort zone regularly, followed by recovery and nourishment. Think of your life as a series of challenging sprints, with recovery in between, rather than a marathon that never ends. What would you think of a teacher or coach who never pushed you out of your comfort zone?
Creative, adaptive and flexible responses to stress are literally built into the DNA of living things. As conditions change (as they constantly do), living things discover new ways to cope with the resulting stress.
My childhood neighbor and schoolmate, Frances Arnold, won a Nobel Prize (and many other science and engineering honors) in 2019 for her role in the invention of “directed evolution.” She and her colleagues figured out how to stress organisms to get them to rapidly produce desired kinds of enzymes and other proteins so complex that they would be quite difficult to formulate using traditional chemical engineering. The results are microorganisms that can do chemistry nature would never have invented, such as turning sugars into fuel and new immunotherapy for cancer patients. Although excessive stress can injure and kill, the right kind of stress can yield benefits. Directed evolution has created processes that are far less expensive and more environmentally friendly than their industrial predecessors.
Although stress is essential to health and growth, stress injuries — traumas — are real. We all have physical, emotional, and spiritual breaking points. Trauma results from terrible events or chronic danger, neglect, or betrayal. Childhood traumas are usually the hardest to heal, sometimes causing measurable, permanent brain changes. Still, at least some of the injuries caused by excessive stress can eventually make you stronger, if only because you can end up with confidence in your ability to overcome and recover. The phrase “Talent needs trauma” in high-performance sports is controversial, but research suggests that those who haven’t experienced trauma don’t cope with failure as well.
Walking into a support group or a therapist’s office is no more an indication of weakness than walking into a gym or physical therapy. Either way, it shows a desire for health and strength.
Myth 2 — Stress is only about danger.
Your brain has an autopilot that is always on the lookout for patterns that signal when it should prepare you to rise to a challenge or react to a threat. These reactions happen almost instantly, before you think. Your autopilot also decides, instantly, whether or not you have what you need to cope. If your autopilot feels confident that you have what you need, you’ll have a challenge reaction. If not, you’ll have a threat reaction.
During either kind of reaction, stress hormones are released, your heart beats faster, digestion slows down, your sense of time alters, memory sharpens and other physical and mental changes prepare you for action. The big difference between the two is that during a threat reaction, stress hormone levels rise much higher, which triggers self-protective changes, such as moving blood away from your skin (in case you are physically injured). Most notably, during a threat reaction your blood pressure rises, but not in the challenge reaction.
As you’ll read shortly, the challenges and threats your autopilot senses are not just physical, leftovers from the days humans lived “in the wild.” Many of the most difficult stresses are social and spiritual.
Myth 3 — Stress is a good motivator.
Fear, guilt and shame are all stressful and it is tempting to imagine that they are useful motivators. However, even when they seem to be, it never lasts. They eventually fail because they trigger a threat reaction, blocking willpower and impulse control. For example, anti-smoking campaigns that showed horrible images of lung cancer ultimately led smokers to smoke more, not less, as they sought relief from the anxiety that the images inspired. Threats are only useful motivators if you are trying to provoke someone to fight or run away.
Myth 4 — It’s all about your attitude.
Resilience is not a character trait. The starting point is not “grit,” “mental toughness” or whatever the latest buzzword is. Those are results of practicing resilience routines, which build willpower, motivation, impulse control, perspective, and flexibility.
Self-reliance is important, but it is just one ingredient of resilience. When life becomes difficult, especially when the unexpected hits, you also need confidence that you are well connected to dependable resources outside of yourself. Your attitude can help you find and develop external resources, but it doesn’t change your genes or the circumstances of your birth and life. Equal opportunity is an excellent goal (optimism), but it doesn’t exist (realism). We are not afforded equal health, wealth, safety, opportunities, physical strength, social support, and spiritual development.
Attitude’s role is limited because your stress autopilot doesn’t learn to activate by thinking or analyzing; its decisions are based on patterns in your genes or absorbed from your experiences. Resilience routines build mental toughness by regularly showing your autopilot patterns that teach and remind it who and what you can depend on (including yourself). Your attitudes only influence your autopilot to the extent that it affects how you experience your life.
I’ve emphasized that your reactions – the ones you’re born with and the ones you absorbed through experience – are automatic, to make it clear that you can’t think them away – you can’t just decide to stop having them. But you can change them, over time.
Myth 5 — Resilience is self-reliance.
Becoming resilient doesn’t mean that you, all by yourself, will be ready for whatever life throws your way. Nobody is. Besides, even the most self-reliant people didn’t become that way on their own.
Suppose that you have the time and money to prepare for every imaginable difficulty. The unexpected will still happen. To grow more resilient you will develop your own resources and strengths, but you will also build and maintain strong connections to natural resources, people, and wisdom. You will become more self-reliant, but you will also become more interdependent. No matter how strong, healthy, wealthy, and wise you may become, you can draw more from knowing, really knowing, that a community has your back.
The gift of self-reliance is freedom from being forced to conform to society’s demands, but it is a small step away from arrogance and selfishness. Interdependence’s gift is to know that you belong — to nature, people, and to God or another way you might choose to trust in a higher power, but it can become unhealthy co-dependence when it robs others of their self-reliance.
Myth 6 — Fight stress by getting away from it.
This is two myths in one. Fighting and fleeing make stress stickier. The stress reaction is called “fight or flight” because those are what it prepares us to do.
When you suppress your stress reactions, you are fighting.
Don’t think of stress as something to battle, combat or another metaphor for fighting. “What we resist, persists,” psychoanalyst Carl Jung observed (and there’s plenty of evidence to back him up). Stuffing down your stress is understandable, but exhausting, even though you may be so accustomed to it that you have stopped noticing how tired you are. Choose to begin to learn to welcome and embrace stress, while combining it with recovery, as you’ll see in these pages. That’s what transforms stress into strength.
When you “check out” you are fleeing.
Rest is critical to recovery, but when distractions and entertainment become ways to avoid or escape stress, you’re still in the “flight” part of fight-or-flight. Plopping into the recliner to watch television or play a computer game can easily become a way to avoid being present to yourself and others. Working too much, addictions, and affairs can result in not coming home at all. Like an athlete, you won’t make progress if avoiding pain is more important to you than growing and staying strong.
Recovery is much more than getting away from the sources of stress. Nourishment also matters, and not just after physical stress. Without social and spiritual rest and “nutrition,” stress cannot be transformed into strength. During true rest and relaxation, your body releases hormones and other biological signals that heal stress-caused damage to your heart and other organs. Deep, healthy sleep lets your brain process stress and trauma so they are far less likely to haunt you later.
Myth 7 — Suck it up and move on.
Resilience is not about trying harder, even though there are times when “suck it up and move on” is exactly the right thing to do. If you are training for a marathon and feel like quitting after a few miles — suck it up and keep going! Getting out of your comfort zone is essential to building strength. Another saying applies when you are struggling with difficult reactions — The only way to get rid of bad feelings is to have them.