Sunday, 24 April 2016

Is it possible to build 'resilience' to 'stress'?

WE ARE COMING TO THE END of stress awareness month 2016 so it seems like a good time to ask: is it possible to build resilience to stress?
"Because life is tough and, if we want to survive, we need to learn how to be tough back!" (Anonymous)
HG College tutor, therapist and writer Julia Welstead will be pondering this important question from the human givens point of view in our next live webinar on Wednesday 27th April @ 1pm (UK BST).

HUGH GLASS (c.1780-1833) was an American
fur trapper and frontiersman noted for his exploits
in the American West during the first third of the
19th century. Self-sufficient and courageous, he
epitomises a form of archetypal human resilience.

People have been talking about 'stress' for ages but 'resilience' is a word that recently seems to have appeared alongside it. It's been cropping up in articles and chanted in conversations: a magic word that immediately makes anyone employing or hearing it feel a bit better - a bit less stressed, a bit more resilient (at least for a moment or two, until the emotional effects wear off).

But what do we need to do to get something more substantial, a little less transitory, from the 'stress'/'resilience' theme? It feels like there might be some stuff here that could be of more lasting use if we can find an intelligent way of unpacking and making sense of the key terms - of taking what are really a set of confusing abstractions (that can mean different things to different people, and even different things to the same person at different times) and putting them to work in a bit of clear-thinking on a subject that does seems pretty important.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'stress' as follows:
A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
And the human givens definition says simply that 'stress' is what happens when our innate physical and emotional needs are not met. When this happens the emotional brain feels itself to be under threat, and starts to 'sweat'. This is a really useful way of making 'stress' concrete and understandable to anyone, and we can do the same thing with 'resilience' too. Again, the OED is a good place to start. 'Resilience' is:
The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
So if 'stress' is what happens to us when innate needs are not met (could be sleep, could be control) then 'resilience' could be the ability not to fall apart when things get stressful. This means several things, for instance:
  • The ability to endure stresses that we have no immediate control over.
  • The ability to reduce stresses that we do have control over. 
This is reminiscent of The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971):
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things [stresses] I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
To which we could add:
  • The ability to avoid making things worse by misusing our innate resources (such as imagination) in ways that are self-defeating.
And then there are the stories of people who have demonstrated outstanding resilience, in the above senses, from which we can learn a good deal. For instance, the real story of Hugh Glass, the man on whom the recent Hollywood film The Revenant was based, is quite astonishing. After being savagely mauled by a bear, stripped of his possessions and left for dead, Glass crawled his way alone out of the wilderness. Later the same year he found himself abandoned once more, his companions again thinking he was dead. He wrote:
"I felt quite rich when I found my knife, flint and steel in my shot pouch.  These little fixin's make a man feel right peart when he is three or four hundred miles from anybody or any place."
Glass had the skills and tools to survive, was courageous and not prone to feeling sorry for himself. His story demonstrates that human beings are far, far tougher (and need far, far less) than modern society encourages us to believe (perhaps to keep us docile, dependent and obedient).

Truly resilient people don't run away from the difficulties and discomforts of life, nor do they passively accept (or keep returning to) familiar yet toxic situations. Instead they arm themselves with the knowledge and tools that they need in order to handle stress as they seek to extend and stretch themselves, to step outside of their comfort zones into a world that becomes, as a result, gradually wider and wider (instead of narrower and narrower).

So please join Julia on Wednesday 27th April @ 1pm (UK BST) for what promises to be an essential and stimulating webinar.