Stress Resistance vs. Resilience

What’s the difference and which is better?

Resilience is the ability to adapt to significant adversity and tWhat’s the difference and which is better?

Resilience is the ability to adapt to significant adversity and trauma, to recover quickly, to bounce back. Resilient individuals may have an acute stress reaction after going through a traumatic incident. They may go into a tail-spin and suffer temporary symptoms such as sleeplessness, shock, anxiety, disbelief, and depression. But it is temporary and within a month they get back to normal. It may not be exactly the same state as before. It may be what’s referred to as a “new normal”, which is a little higher or lower than the old emotional state, but it is a state of homeostasis and the individual will be fully functioning.rauma, to recover quickly, to bounce back. Resilient individuals may have an acute stress reaction after going through a traumatic incident. They may go into a tail-spin and suffer temporary symptoms such as sleeplessness, shock, anxiety, disbelief, and depression. But it is temporary and within a month they get back to normal. It may not be exactly the same state as before. It may be what’s referred to as a “new normal”, which is a little higher or lower than the old emotional state, but it is a state of homeostasis and the individual will be fully functioning.

A non-resilient individual by contrast would not recover from the tail-spin and would not get back to normal, and would have long-term functional impairments, and potentially PTSD.

A person who has a high level of stress resistance would never have the tail-spin in the first place. Whatever the crisis was, it would just be a small blip and then life as normal continues without any acute stress reaction.

Isn’t it better to be resistant to stress then? Not in all circumstances. After going through serious trauma it would be normal and natural to have some stress reaction. That’s what makes us human. If you don’t have some acute stress reaction after a loved one dies, then you might just be a psychopath!

Where we need to develop stress resistance is in our regular work and family life. People that suffer from stress reactions from routine day-to-day issues will potentially develop psychological and physiological problems needlessly.

So it’s ok to let yourself have an acute stress reaction when you go through the odd significant trauma in life, but it’s not ok when it’s from dealing with a bad boss that you see everyday! So the same person may be resilient in some circumstances and stress resistant in other circumstances, and that is healthy.

Resistance and resilience are developed in the same way. Incorporate the resiliency factors into your life and it will grow your levels of both resistance and resilience. I will continue adding posts about the various characteristics and behaviours that will make you immune to the stress caused by the demands of the modern workplace, and give you the ability to bounce back after a major crushing blow to life as you know it.

This ability will help you create long term success and happiness.

(Thanks to my daughter Melissa for creating the graphs to illustrate the point better.)

Does Self-discipline Make us Resilient?

Yes, but why?

I have studied research on the various resiliency factors, and the reasons why most of these factors increase resilience are pretty straight forward. It makes sense at first blush that having a good support system in the form of a loving family would help you get through challenges. It’s obvious that if you have a sense of humor and meditate and work out, that you will be better off when dealing with stress.

When I read Dr. Robert Brooks’ research stating that self-discipline is a vital component of a resilient mindset, I wondered “What is it about self-discipline that makes us more stress resilient?” The answer didn’t hit me right away.

As I read a little more of Dr. Brooks’ work I saw the connections with stress and lack of self control. If you are too impulsive or compulsive you will invite stress into your life. Typically impulsive people have trouble controlling appetites, and give in to temptations such as inappropriate sex, pornography addictions, over-eating, drugs, alcohol, losing temper, and on and on. Those are behaviors that cause stress. In addition they are usually behaviours that compromise our values, so we feel guilt and shame which only serves to magnify the stress.

So I figured that having self-discipline is not as much a characteristic that builds personal resilience as it is a characteristic that helps us avoid the stress in the first place.

However, as I studied a little more about the brain and how it works, I made some new connections. Generally speaking our pre-frontal cortex is our rational, reasoning and logical part of our brain, and our amygdala and the rest of our limbic system are the emotional and animalistic parts of our brain. The limbic system is responsible for our “fight or flight” response. When you give in to temptation by doing something that is pleasurable even though you know it is wrong, it is your limbic system winning out over your pre-frontal cortex. When you do something that is hard, like writing a presentation when it would be easier to watch TV, that’s your pre-frontal cortex winning out over your limbic system. But when you quit writing before you are done to go watch the latest episode of Modern Family just to hear Sofia Vergara’s accent, you guessed it, the limbic system is back in charge.

What does this have to do with resiliency? Worry, fear and anxiety are based in the limbic system. Most worries and fears are not rational. The pre-frontal cortex knows that flying is statistically safer than driving, yet the limbic system causes many people to be stressed every time they step on a plane. Which do you give more weight to, your pre-frontal cortex or limbic system?

People with a high level of self-discipline are people that would have a stronger pre-frontal cortex, and rely more on logic and reasoning. They would tend not to be influenced by irrational fears. Their rational brain more often than not would win out over the emotional brain. So now it makes more sense to me why people that are self-disciplined would be resistant to negative stress reactions.

Yes this is over simplifying a complex relationship between parts of the brain, but for us lay-people the generalization works. It works because we just need to know the basics so we can improve our odds in this constant battle in our mind.

Self-discipline is like a muscle. It will be built and strengthened over time as you practice resisting temptation, and are proactive with goals. It doesn’t happen over night, but with exercising your self-control it will grow. Another method is meditation. Research has shown that meditation increases self-discipline, and makes people less impulsive, and more likely to think through their problems instead of reacting emotionally.

As you reach higher levels of self-discipline you will avoid bringing a lot of stress into your life, and the stress that you can’t avoid won’t crush you.

Best Methods to Manage Stress

I’ve always disagreed with the majority of the stress management literature that promotes avoidance of stressors. Unfortunately in this world of uncertainty we cannot predict nor prevent many of the stressors we face, and furthermore we really don’t want to. We place ourselves in risky and challenging situations because that is how we grow and achieve.

“If you want to avoid stress then don’t go for that next promotion, or forget about starting that new business, don’t even think about writing that book.” See what I mean…avoidance of stress is not the answer.

In the Sep/Oct 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind there was an article “Fight the Frazzled Mind”. The author, Robert Epstein, referenced research that suggested the most effective way to manage stress was reducing, eliminating and avoiding sources of stress. Ok…that’s obvious. But effective doesn’t mean the best or most practical.

What I did like about the article is that it said “with the right training and preparation we might be able to face any stressor with equanimity.” It spoke about relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, visualization, muscle-relaxation and meditation as effective ways to lower blood pressure and make people feel immunized against stressors. The author also showed that managing thoughts was an important competency. Those that can reframe difficulties in a more positive light, or correct irrational beliefs will be more resilient.

Avoidance and prevention are good approaches when it’s needless stress, like what we bring on ourselves through procrastination or just doing stupid things. Clearly I’m not saying we should go looking for stress, but when it inevitably finds us we can still have equanimity. Manage your thoughts by looking for the silver lining and being realistically optimistic, and manage your body through relaxation techniques. The best methods allow you to live with high demands, but with peace.

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Laughing at Misfortune

Can you look back on misfortunes or challenges in your past and laugh about it? Ok, well that’s pretty easy. How about finding the humour in your present difficulties? That’s a lot harder, but it’s also healthier.

People that can find humour in their problems, who can laugh at themselves and who don’t take themselves too seriously are more resilient.

Even research going back forty years showed soldiers returning from Vietnam had lower rates of PTSD when they were able to laugh when facing tragedy and trauma. Sometimes referred to as “black comedy”, this type of humour is common among police, soldiers, nurses and other emergency workers. Having the ability to joke about tragic issues such as death seems inappropriate on the surface, but studies have shown that it is psychologically protective. Of course we have to remember there is “a time and a place”, and the need to be sensitive to victims, however, the joking itself is not a bad thing.

When I was team leader for a police tactical unit in Northern Ontario, we had a guy that could always crack us up. No matter how cold and wet and tired we were, no matter how miserable the situation was, Ryan could always find something funny about it. He was relentless with the jokes. Although it didn’t seem like a critical skill in those emergency situations, I considered him a critical piece. Why? Because I knew that no matter how bad things got, morale wouldn’t spiral downwards, and team members wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the demanding situation because he would have them laughing.

Finding humour in difficulties helps to keep things in perspective. Also, similar to exercise, when we laugh our brains release feel-good biochemicals.

Laughing feels good and it’s good for you. What has you stressed, frustrated, angry, or overwhelmed? What can you find right now that is funny about it? Like I said at the start, it’s hard, but it works.

Letting Go

When I do presentations I usually talk about the stress inflicted on us, such as trauma, unexpected changes in our circumstances, or even high demands that are placed on us at work. But what about stress and anxiety we cause ourselves because we messed up?

I often talk to people that have stress in their lives because of mistakes they have made, errors in judgment, or just not doing what they knew was the right thing to do. This feeling of guilt can be a powerful negative emotion that can harm our ability to be happy, effective and successful. So you need to let it go.

But hang on, aren’t we supposed to feel guilty when we do something wrong? Absolutely. There is a valid purpose for guilt. It is to let us know we violated our standards, we did something that was not consistent with our values, with who we are. We need to use that horrible feeling as an impetus to change. Guilt should be used as a course correction, not as a reason to beat yourself up for the next five years. Too often people feel guilt for so long that it changes their perception of themselves, and it turns into shame and self-hatred. That type of emotion is not helpful, and it decreases the person’s ability to deal with any type of stress.

If you can let go of that crap you’ve been hanging onto for years it will have a profound effect on your level of resilience. Research has shown that people that have a tendency to live in the past don’t do as well in disasters or facing other stressful events. It’s much healthier to live in the now. Be in the present moment.

How do you do that? One method is Mindfulness Meditation which helps you to focus on the present moment without worrying about the past or being concerned about the future. It’s very effective in reducing stress. I don’t have room to teach it here, so if you’re interested, Google it.

Another way of learning to let go is “The Sedona Method”. It’s a technique used for releasing negative emotions such as guilt or shame. There is a book by Hale Dwoskin called “The Sedona Method”, and it takes you step by step through the technique of letting go. I think the book is longer than it needed to be because it’s a fairly simple process, but I’ll recommend it anyway.

We all make mistakes. When you mess up, use the guilt as an impelling force to propel positive changes, and thenlet it go.

Watch Me Bounce

A friend of mine started a website recently, “Watch Me Bounce, Inspiring Resilience Through Story”. I met Rocky Reichman at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem while we both attended a course there about trauma and resilience. I’d like to recommend his website, and not just because he interviewed me for his site. The interview can be found at this link:

Learning to Bounce Back

We all suffer failure from time to time, whether in business, relationships, health or other. I’ve had my share… starting with 11th grade math! However, our success in life isn’t determined by if we fail or not, it’s determined by how we react to that failure. After we suffer the typical tailspin and a period of distress or malaise, do we bounce back? Or do we sink deeper into hopelessness? Resilient people bounce back.

A fundamental question then is “Can resiliency be taught?” The answer is “Yes” according to Dr. Martin Seligman, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of several books on the topic of Positive Psychology. He is involved in a program with the U.S. Military that is teaching resiliency and mental toughness to sergeants and other boots-on-the-ground leaders. The goal is to decrease PTSD and increase well-being and Post Traumatic Growth. The skills they are teaching also work well for leaders in other fields.

There is an excellent article about this by Dr. Seligman, in the April issue of the Harvard Business Review. Check it out. I just read it this morning and I highly recommend it.

What are they actually teaching? One of the key skills being taught is how to be optimistic when experiencing failure or trauma. I will write more on optimism later. It’ll be a full blog post on it’s own, because not all experts agree on the benefits of an optimistic attitude.

For now I’ll conclude with this. Challenges are short-term, but success is long-term!

Welcome to My Blog

As I begin this blog the question in my mind is “Why does this matter?” We are constantly inundated with information, so why do you need more? My goal is to provide something of value, to make it worth your while to spend a few minutes here reading it.

Stress is the leading cause of illness in North America. Stress can have a significant negative impact on our lives professionally and personally if we don’t have strategies to cope. Much of the stress management literature is about lowering our demands. That is NOT what I teach. I believe that the high demands that we place on ourselves are the aspects of our life that make us successful. We need these stresses and challenges if we want to live fully!

I will be providing tips to increase your ability to deal with extreme demands without suffering the negative consequences of stress. So, I believe this matters because your level of success in life will be determined to a large extent by the level of resiliency that you reach.

I will base my blog posts on the latest research, but also on anecdotal evidence and my own observations. If you have any comments or ideas, please send them. I’m looking forward to spending time with you here.