Stress is a given in our lives—it can even be a positive and healthy experience, such as a marriage, a move, or a new job. But when it feels as if there is no relief from stress and tension, our bodies and minds can become taxed and overwhelmed. Joan Borysenkno, author, speaker, and pioneer in integrative medicine, outlines the effects of chronic stress on the body and explains the relationship between stress and resilience. The following is an excerpt of the chapter, “The Three Secrets of Resilience” from the book, It’s not the End of the World: Developing Resilience in Times of Change; Joan Borysenko, Hay House, 2009.
The Three Secrets of Resilience
Get a lot of sleep, a lot of exercise. Eat real good.
Say your prayers. And be good to your dogs.
In response to the question, “What is your advice to survive and come back in hard times?”
I was sitting in a CNN green room in front of a plate of stale bagels. A green room, in case you’ve never been in one, isn’t green at all. It’s just an ordinary waiting room populated by nervous people waiting to be guests on radio or TV shows. My first book, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind had won me an interview on Sonya Live, an intelligent and lively talk show hosted by psychologist Dr. Sonya Friedman. Sitting right next to the bagels was her most recent book, Smart Cookies Don’t Crumble. I tried to take the witty title to heart, but the sound of the blood pounding in my ears was a distraction.
Let’s not crumble here, Joan, I thought. This interview is not a disaster-in-the-making; it’s an opportunity to get your message out. Somehow I picked my way out onto the set, circumnavigating the maze of snaking wires that don’t show up on your TV screen. Wiping beads of cold sweat from my face, I took a seat across from Sonya. She was composed, poised, and interested in my topic of mind-body medicine. And, of course, she was a pro who had been sitting in the catbird seat for years. I, on the other hand, was a rank amateur in a completely new situation…one with the potential to humiliate me from coast to coast. Worse still, my mother was watching.
Although I began the interview in a mild state of terror, by the end I’d managed to relax and come back home to myself. I not only survived. I even had a little fun. This bouncing back from stress is called resilience. It’s a graceful way of flowing through life, adapting to different circumstances with the ease of water assuming the shape of whatever container it’s poured into. Resilience is also a courageous affirmation of life in the face of more serious stresses like illness, divorce, job loss, financial setback, abuse, war, and terror.
Stress and Resilience
Let’s take a closer look at how stress and resilience work. Think of a rubber band. When it’s stretched, there’s stress on the rubber. But when you release the stress, it snaps back into shape. That’s the most basic kind of resilience. But if the rubber band is stretched for a long time, it begins to fatigue and is more likely to give out.
The same is true for the human body and mind. We give out when we’re stressed for a long time. Studies estimate that 75-90% of visits to the family doctor are for conditions caused or made worse by stress. These include headaches, digestive disturbances, infertility, memory loss, heart problems, allergies, high blood pressure, immune disorders, blood sugar control for diabetics, back pain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and many other illnesses.
When an emergency calls for sudden stretching, most healthy people can rise to the challenge. Imagine that you’ve just tripped over the cord to your computer and it goes flying off the table. Without having to think about it, your body releases adrenalin and you have the sudden agility of an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox. With a little luck, you can even catch that laptop! Your sudden athletic prowess is due to an automatic overdrive system called the fight-or-flight response that kicks in for survival purposes. When the emergency is over, your “rubber band” relaxes and you return to a resting state of balance and ease.
But what if the stressor doesn’t go away? After all, life is much more complex than flying laptops with short trajectories. The fight-or-flight system evolved before chronic stresses like those of a company seeking a bailout in a struggling economy, families juggling mounting credit card debt, or losing your pension just as you’re ready to retire. If you can’t release tension, then stress becomes chronic and you become more prone to illness, depression, anger, and anxiety. And instead of enjoying life as the creative adventure that resilient people perceive it to be, you get sidelined and stuck.
One of the most famous scales for evaluating stress levels and correlating them with illness was designed in 1967 by two psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. Their scale measures stress in Life Change Units (LCU’s). The most stressful change, the death of a spouse, rates 100 LCU’s. Getting married rates a 50. After all, learning to pick up your dirty socks (or live with some one who doesn’t), agreeing on a budget, or discovering that your beloved snores can be stressful life changes. Taking out a small loan or a mortgage was worth 17 LCU’s in the mid-1960s. These days, when job loss and foreclosures are so high, it might garner even more points.
Holmes and Rahe gave the test to thousands of people and correlated their scores with health. The higher the score, the more likely their subjects were to get sick. A score of more than 300 LCU’s is associated with a high risk of illness, while scores between 150-300 correlate with a moderate risk of illness. You can find a copy of the Holmes and Rahe stress scale for adults and youth on Wikipedia by clicking here. The scale has been tested in both men and women, and in different cultures as well. Their pioneering research helped define the role of change in stress and set the scene for understanding resilience.
What’s My Number?
You can get a very simple read on your stress level by drawing a horizontal line 100 millimeters long on a piece of paper. Draw a happy face (relaxed and at ease) on the left end and a sad face (stressed and tense) on the right end. Then place a hatch mark wherever you think your stress level is. Measure the line from left to right. Are you a 20, a 30, a 75?
Repeat the reading each day at the same time (before meals, since eating is relaxing) and record it daily for a month. Does your number fall as you practice the exercises outlined in this book? If not, consider getting professional help.
To learn more about resilience, check out Joan’s book on the topic: It’s not the End of the World: Developing Resilience in Times of Change, Hay House, Carlsbad 2009