In seeking ways to optimize our well-being, I find that there is much mistaken negativity around the topic of stress. We are told that too much unremitting stress can lead to our emotional and physical undoing. We are told we need to manage it, reduce it, avoid it, or at the very least balance it with some relaxation. For years I’ve been teaching various proven ways to alleviate stress. I regularly teach a yoga series called Yoga for Stress Reduction, which is always well attended because the topic resonates for so many of us.
Despite teaching stress reduction for so many years, I never bought into the idea that stress itself was a “bad” thing that we needed to avoid or even reduce. Not long ago, a book caught my attention by author Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a researcher and psychologist at Stanford University, entitled “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You, and How You Get Good At It.” Dr. McGonigal argues that we need stress in order to thrive and that to have a meaningful life is to have a stressful one. Our job is to learn how to leverage the stress so that it works to our advantage and not against us.
When I consider the upside of stress, I think of resilience: the ability to bounce back from adversity. Resilience is the ultimate good news because it tells us that stress is not the enemy and that we need not be brought down by life’s circumstances. Instead resilience is the key that enables us to grow through adversity, thrive under duress, and bounce back from trauma.
Our human capacity for resilience is intriguing and in many ways mysterious. As an individual who has overcome a great deal of adversity and who has also witnessed this remarkable capacity in some of my clients but not in others, I have been curious to understand: Where does resilience come from? Do some have it and others not? Or does everyone have it but it somehow needs to be activated for the potential to be realized?
Gordon Neufeld, PhD, a Vancouver-based developmental psychologist, offers his insight into resilience. His belief is that everyone possesses the potential for resilience but only some come to realize it.
If we all possess the potential for resilience, how can we set the stage for it to arise? I love what Dr. Neufeld states, “The story of emotional health and well-being is not about what has happened to us but rather about what hasn’t happened within us.” During child development, optimal functioning is characterized by a sense of playfulness, restfulness, and the ability to feel. The problem with stress, particularly traumatic stress, is that it robs us of these elusive states. During times of stress, we shut down our ability to play, rest, and feel in order to survive or to just keep going.
But, as Dr. Neufeld states, the secret of the emotional bounce-back is the emotional let-down that precedes it. One has to be able to pause long enough to notice that an emotion is arising, allow oneself to arrive at the emotion, feel it, and only then can we move past it or bounce back from it. We only lighten up once the heaviness has been embraced. This is one way that resilience or bounce back “happens” – through the natural process of feeling. The reason many of us become stuck is we’re cut off from our natural instinct to feel, play and rest. It appears important therefore to have sufficient access to our sadness, anger, fear or whatever feelings arise within us. We can sense into our feelings much easier within the context of a safe relationship (whether with a friend, partner or therapist) or during true play or rest (when we are not using our thinking brains).
In addition to having access to emotions, what else might be involved in unlocking the potential for resilience? I read a book recently entitled “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance, an inspiring memoir about a boy whose childhood was characterized by abuse, neglect, constant chaos and instability but went on to ascend social ladders, complete college and graduate from Yale Law School. One of the factors he credited for his rise out of poverty and a life of struggle was the presence of his tough but loving grandmother. Like myself and like most stories I’ve read of individuals who have risen above difficult circumstances, there has been the love and constancy of a significant adult who believed in them.
I also believe there needs to be enough inner strength to not run away from adversity. In psychology, the term “ego strength” is used to describe the qualities within us that keeps us from giving up or breaking down when things don't go our way. Resilience relies on ego strength, qualities that include confidence, mental flexibility, self-trust, and optimism, to name just a few. Even a small amount of it is sufficient.
Living in a world we cannot control, we all experience adversity. To keep from getting stuck on our journey, we need to nurture resilience in ourselves and in the people we care for. Resilience is everyone’s concern. Instead of Yoga for Stress Reduction, I now teach Yoga for Stress Resilience, an empowering practice that promotes physical embodiment, mental fortitude, and deep nervous system relaxation, tools that help us not only to embrace challenge but also to bounce back from it when necessary.