The truth about stress and resilience

This post follows on from my earlier article Why Stress Does Not Exist.

It was Hans Selye who first coined the word ‘Stress’ in relation to non-specific illnesses. Contrary to popular myth, Selye did not say that ‘Stress’ caused illness. What he meant was that if the individual fails to adapt to adverse Life Events then a breakdown in body functions could occur. Examples of ‘bad’ life events include job loss, relationship breakdown, financial disaster, overwork and illness.

However, Selye was vague in defining exactly what stress was. He seems to have borrowed the metaphor from architecture in which buildings which develop cracks in the walls due to insecure foundations, or adverse weather conditions, are held to be ‘under stress’. But human beings are not buildings and while some people find it hard to deal with adversity others thrive on it. This points to a fatal flaw in theories about stress: life events do not impact on every person in the same way. Which means, logically, it is not adversity which creates stress but something inside the person.

This last point is related to a still more important point. Which is that the word ‘stress’ illogically refers both to the cause and the effect. One person might say that an irritable, impatient person is ‘under stress’ while another will add that the person is ‘stressing out’. Meaning both that circumstances are causing his irritation and that his irritability is creating more ‘stress’. But something cannot be the cause of itself. Which leads us back to the realisation that the real cause of what we call ‘stress’ lies in our reaction to life challenges.

This is one reason why in recent years attention has shifted away from ‘stress management’ towards the study of resilience – the strengths and skills possessed by people who have learned how to master adversity.

Here are five key skills:

Social skills: The key here is that the person can draw on the support of friends and family in hard times. To do that they have to have good relationships in place. From that it follows that they have empathy, good communication skills and are ‘there’ for other people. They also tend to have a good sense of humour.

Problem-solving: Problem-solvers look carefully at the facts, make close decisions based on those facts and always, always, keep the end in view. They are also good at getting other people to look at the problem and come up with fresh ideas.

Self-reliance: The independent person does not go along with what other people think. Instead they follow their own ideas, trusting in their own thoughts, emotions and intuitions in order to find their way in life. As such they are good decision-makers.

A ‘can-do’ attitude: This is sometimes called ‘Optimism’ in some manuals but it is not really a matter of seeing the best in situations. Rather, it has to do with pro-actively looking for ways to make a bad situation better, focusing on what the person can influence rather than on what they can’t. You can take an Optimism Test here.

Emotional intelligence: Emotional intelligence supports the other four skills. Emotionally intelligent people are good at reading others, avoid dramatizing problems, trust in their own emotions and focus on what they can do rather than on fantasies. You can take an Emotional Intelligence Test here.

Finally, I remind my readers of the importance of Mindfulness in regular practice. It really is a ‘stress’ buster. My last article – 7 Keys to Mindfulness – with a link to a free tape – you can read here.

Photo credit: eamoncurry123 via photopin cc

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