Ground on which we can only be saved from destruction by fighting without delay is desperate ground.
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Stress is one of the most insidious challenges to building resilience. It can be a constant strain on our natural balancing mechanism, gradually wearing down its efficacy and slowing its response time.
Basic ways to reduce stress that therapists often recommend include changing your emotional relationship to the stressor and practicing stress reduction techniques such as meditation or yoga. But the most effective method, if possible, is to remove or reduce the stressor itself.
The best place to start resilience-building is your environment.
Think about your home, your car, your job, your relationships. Focus on ways to reduce unnecessary stress. Anything that interferes with living a peaceful life is a candidate for stress-reducing changes.
You can often completely eliminate minor stressors that add emotional noise. Things like sharpening dull kitchen knives, creating a system so you don’t misplace your keys, replacing a cell phone that keeps losing its charge, or changing your route to work might seem small, but the toll these stressors take is cumulative.
More challenging stressors like ending a toxic relationship or transitioning from the wrong job or career are, of course, harder to eliminate, but making those changes can create a huge boost to resilience.
Regardless of the source of stress, the first question to ask yourself is, “Can this change?” and if the answer is “yes,” change it!
I encountered a striking example of the efficiency and effectiveness of removing a stressor several years ago. I was working with a bright, affable 12-year-old boy who, despite an obvious interest in learning, was always getting suspended from school. When I asked him about the events that led to his suspensions, I noticed that he always smiled when he talked about getting his teachers angry.
I visited his home and discovered that he had an angry and imposing stepfather. Provoking his teachers was my young client’s way of dealing with his resentment toward his stepfather—he could enrage his teachers and they wouldn’t hit him, but his stepfather might.
A typical intervention in cases like this is family therapy, so with the family’s permission I returned a week later. My client lived in a house adjacent to his mother’s business, and there was a constant interchange between the two locations, affecting all members of the family in some way.
During the session, I asked each family member to imagine what their lives would be like if they woke up the next day and all their problems were solved. The first thing each one said—even the five-year-old—was that they’d be living somewhere else.
A month later, they moved, and very soon afterward, my 12-year-old client stopped acting out in school.
Clean up the cat hairs!
A related aspect of creating a safe, resilience-friendly environment involves “cat hairs.” When you find yourself overreacting to a comment, a tone of voice, or a situation, or you inexplicably feel sad, angry, jealous, or some other difficult emotion, you might have a problem with cat hairs.
Of course, I don’t mean literal cat hairs. I love cats!
The term “cat hair,” in this context, comes from an experiment with lab rats.
Researchers wanted to see if rats are genetically programmed to fear cats. They placed several rat pups who had been exposed only to people and other rats—never to a cat—in a cage and monitored their playfulness for several days.
The rats played together freely until, on the fourth day, the researchers took the smallest cat stimulus they could think of, a single cat hair, and dropped it into the center of the cage. Soon, the pups stopped playing and ran to the edges of the cage, trembling with fear.
After 24 hours, the researchers removed the cat hair. They continued monitoring the rat pups, but days later, the rats had not returned to their baseline playfulness. Where there had once been a cat hair, the pups seemed to fear, there might still be a cat.
Fear and trauma can leave an indelible imprint on us, too.
Our automatic fear-handling mechanism makes us prone to reacting to our “cat hairs” with fight/-flight/-freeze responses. Such triggered reactions can negatively affect our jobs, relationships, and many other aspects of our lives, cheating us out of a more full version of ourselves.
Fortunately, humans have more options than rats do for dealing with “cat hairs.”
Reminders of traumatic experiences that trigger strong emotions can often be removed. Sometimes these are physical objects, but more often they are habitual actions. For example, if a certain phrase or tone spoken by a friend, relative, or romantic partner reminds you of a bad relationship or a difficult childhood, you can ask him or her to change it. Most people will comply with a request like this when it’s presented in context.
When cat hairs can’t be removed, we can learn to see them merely as hairs.
If your emotional response seems stronger than the situation merits, ask yourself what triggered it. Did the trigger really mean what you felt it did, or did it just stir something inside?
Over time, as we come to understand that some triggers are just triggers, they gradually become less threatening. They’re not cats, we see, but are merely cat hairs. Then we can use our fight/-flight/-freeze mechanism to protect ourselves from real threats, rather than reacting to cat hairs.
What to do:
- Notice what is causing increased stress or a triggered response. Simply paying attention to the feeling and looking at what caused it often provides some relief.
- Remove the stressor, when possible.
- Changeyour relationship to stressors that can’t be removed. For most of us, our attitudes toward stressors and the emotional responses those attitudes generate are more than half of the stress. Even triggered responses can be detoxified by changing our relationship to them.
- Accompany the stress or triggered response. Learn to sit with the feeling rather than reacting to it or pushing it away. Feelings that are pushed aside tend to stay stuck, petrified within us like an ant in amber. Feelings that are reacted to tend to be reinforced. But when feelings are fully experienced, they can shift into different feelings. Fear can turn into peacefulness. Sadness can turn into acceptance. Anger can turn into understanding. Envy can become motivation.
- Develop self-soothing skills. When we are able to self-soothe, sometimes even the cat becomes just a kitten, purring on our laps.
Nonfiction by David J. Bookbinder
The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World on Amazon.com
The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World on Amazon.co.uk