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Stress, Resiliency and 21st Century Life

Stress, Resiliency and 21st Century Life

by Brian Luke Seaward

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 at 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). Resiliency is a new attitude and outlook on life. I used to feel sorry for myself when stress reared its ugly head. But now I take the high road. I look to see what the lesson is to be learned. Every bad situation has a positive light. I am getting good at not seeing myself as a victim anymore, like I used to. Despite my challenges, I can honestly say I am a happy person now,” Mark says. “To quote Nelson Mandela’s favorite poem, Invictus, ‘I am the captain of my fate, I am the master of my soul.’”

 

Contrary to the message of Invictus, victim consciousness (a perpetual negative attitude) is a common mindset across the country today. Moreover, it reaches toxic proportions when people become stressed. Eavesdrop on any conversation today (including your own) and within the first five minutes, you are likely to hear people complaining (grieving) about something. While grieving is healthy, prolonged grieving is not, giving credence to the expression, “once a victim, and twice a volunteer.” You can toss your two cents into the whirlpool of negativity, just don’t dive 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 and social unrest, to name a few. By and large, people don’t like change, particularly the change they cannot control. While change has always been part of the human landscape, the amount and rate of change on today’s horizon is unprecedented and this has people on edge. Add to this any personal changes and the emotional scales become tipped in negativity. As the expression goes, “The only person who likes change is a wet baby.” The truth is, 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.

Stress goes by many different definitions (e.g., 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”, because 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 ancestors’ generations ago. Their stressors were based on surviving physical threats. Our stressors today come in all shapes and sizes, much of it in the form of screen addictions and the overwhelming drone of “digital noise”. And of course some would say many stressors are based on financial survival. Simply stated, most of our stressors today are ego-driven and fear-based perceptions.

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 that colors our world.” Attitude plays a big role in coping with stress. So does willpower. After my presentation of a stress management workshop for the school district staff, one of the attendees thanked me for reminding her to reread her favorite book, Viktor Frankl’s Man Search For Meaning. Frankl, a survivor of the notorious Nazi death camp Auschwitz, taught the world this message: Despite all the hardships life hands us, we have the ability to choose our own thoughts. Victim or victor, the choice is yours.

Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, steered the direction of stress management toward relieving anxiety (fear). While this was a good start, it sent many people in a negative direction (down the path of pessimism). Thanks to the inspiration of people like Abraham Maslow and Martin Seligman, over the past 20 years, psychology has made a shift toward the positive, to Positive Psychology.

The premise of positive psychology invites people to shift their mindset out of victim consciousness, toward appreciation and gratitude. The focus of positive psychology is to move from a motivation of fear (anxiety) toward a motivation of love (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).

An Alchemy of Resiliency Skills

There is no one relaxation technique for everyone, but there is one technique that works for each person. For Cindy, it was nature therapy. Addictions and ingrained stress-prone behaviors come in all varieties. Cindy’s was her addiction to technology. She could never be without her smart phone.

To escape from the cacophony of the digital world and maintain a sense of sanity, Cindy established a new routine that she calls “healthy boundaries”. Twice a day, Cindy makes a habit of disconnecting from the digital world and connecting with the natural world. She starts each day with a pre-dawn walk at her local park. She loves to watch the color of the clouds change from purple to pink, taking delight in watching the herons, osprey and egrets start their forage for food. Nature, she says, has a wonderful way of putting all of one’s problems into perspective. In this time away from the digital world, Cindy reclaims her personal sovereignty and all is right in the world.

The newest research on resiliency reveals that taking time to quiet the mind and recharge personal energy in solitude is important for also recharging our power to endure hardships.

Brian Luke Seaward, PhD is a health psychologist and the author of many best-selling books including Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water; Stressed is Desserts Spelled Backward; Quiet Mind, Fearless Heart; and The Art of Calm. He is the executive Director of the Paramount Wellness Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He will lead a Holistic Stress Management Instructor Workshop April 15 to 17, at the Doubletree Hotel in Windsor Locks. To register, visit

BrianLukeSeaward.com/store/may-2018-holistic-stress-management-instructor-workshop/.

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