By Brian Luke Seaward, PhD
At first glance, Mark’s life looks like a train wreck: His wife of 20 years died suddenly of complications from a chronic disease, two of his three sons were recently diagnosed with learning disabilities, and the company he worked for, for the past three decades, laid him off (six years away from retirement) when it merged with another company.
In a previous chapter in his life, Mark would have returned to a pattern of self-medication and addiction, but that was then. Now Mark practices a lifestyle of resiliency skills — an alchemy he pieced together from counseling sessions, reading best-selling self-help books, a regular meditation practice, cardiovascular exercise, attending a few personal growth workshops and the loyal attendance of his support group meetings.
“To me, resiliency isn’t just bouncing back up from a fall — or series of falls, in my case,” he says. “Resiliency is a new attitude and outlook on life. I used to feel sorry for myself when stressed reared its ugly head. It was easy to justify addictive behavior. But now I take the high road. I look to see what the lesson is to be learned. There is always a lesson. Every bad situation has a positive light. I am getting good at not seeing myself as a victim anymore. Despite my challenges, I can honestly say I am a happy person now. To quote Nelson Mandela’s favorite poem “Invictus”: “I am the captain of my fate. I am the master of my soul.”
Once a Victim, Twice a Volunteer
Victim consciousness (a perpetual negative attitude) is a common mindset across the country today. This reaches toxic proportions when people become stressed. Take, for example, the common practice of BMW (bitch, moan and whine), one all too prevalent in typical conversations from the water cooler chitchat to blog rants. Eavesdrop on any conversation today (including your own), and within the first five minutes, you are likely to hear people complaining (grieving) about something. Although grieving is healthy, prolonged grieving is not, giving credence to the expression, “Once a victim, twice a volunteer.”
Remember, you can toss your two cents into the whirlpool of negativity — just don’t dive in and get sucked in.
Change + Negative Perceptions = Stress
Why is there so much stress in the world today?
Perhaps the best explanation is rapid change. At no time in the recorded history of humanity has there been so much change: the economy, global warming, technology, social unrest, to name a few.
By and large, people don’t like change, particularly the change they cannot control. Although change has always been part of the human landscape, the amount and rate of change on today’s horizon is unprecedented, and this had people on edge. Add to this any personal changes, and the emotional scales become tipped toward negativity.
Remember, any stress that lasts longer than 20 minutes at some level is a control drama, directed and produced by the ego. All stress begs for resolution. Resiliency is the pathway toward resolution.
What Is Stress?
Stress goes by many different definitions, including wear and tear on the body, an inability to cope, the loss of emotional control or an absence of inner peace, but the one definition that most experts agree upon is this: Stress is a perceived threat (real or imagined) to our mind, body, spirit or emotions.
The key word is “perceived.” What one person might interpret as enjoyable, another person perceives as life threatening. Mark Twain said it best this way: “I’m an old man now, and I have known a great many problems, most of which never happened.”
Experts suggest that the types of stress we encounter today are far different from our ancestor’s stressors generations ago. By and large, their stressors were based on surviving physical threats: finding food and avoiding become dinner for larger animals. Our stressors today come in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps some would say many appear to be that of financial survival. More specifically, our stressors today are ego-based. Despite the generational differences, the emotional responses to stress are the same: frustration, anger, anxiety, panic and other negative feelings.
Positive Psychology 101
Walking the halls of Columbine High School, a few months after 13 people were killed in a senseless act of violence, I noticed a poster with this phrase: “Attitude is the paintbrush with which we color the world.”
I was at Columbine High School to give a stress management workshop to the school district staff. Attitude plays a big role in coping with stress, and so does willpower. After my presentation, one of the attendees thanked me for reminding her to reread her favorite book, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, taught the world this message: Despite all the hardships life hands us, we have the ability to chose our own thoughts. Victim or victor, the choice is yours.
Freud, the father of modern psychology, steered the direction of stress management toward relieving anxiety and fear. Although this was a good start, it sent many people in a negative direction, down the path of pessimism.
Thanks to the inspiration of people such as Abraham Maslow and Martin Seligman, over the past 20 years, psychology has made a shift in its direction, one toward the positive. The premise of positive psychology invites people to shift their mindset out of victim consciousness, toward appreciation and gratitude. People are urged to be thankful for what they have rather than focusing on what they don’t have. The focus of positive psychology is to move from a motivation of fear and anxiety toward a motivation of love and compassion. It is not a denial of one’s reality. Rather it is a quest for emotional and spiritual balance, unaided by drugs, alcohol or other addictive means for short-term relief via long-term destructive habits.
A Toolkit of Resiliency Skills
There is no one relaxation technique for everyone, but there is one technique that works for each person. You just need to be willing to try again if the technique that you first use doesn’t work for you.
One popular stress management technique is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a practice of living in the present moment (not the past, which precipitates feelings of guilt, or the future, which triggers anxiety). Mindfulness is more than just observing your thoughts. It is a mental practice in which you learn to detach from the emotions associated with these thoughts that trigger feelings of insecurity, anger, panic, impatience and frustrations, all of which are signs of stress. Mindfulness is a skill; the more you practice, the better you become at achieving a sense of inner peace.
Other people may enjoy nature therapy. Just like addiction, relief can come in all varieties. Nature, you may find, has a wonderful way of putting all of one’s problems into perspective. Maybe your stress relief is exercise, reading or journaling. There is no right answer — just find the one that is right for you.