The Science and Practice of Stress Resilience

Zvi Strassberg, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist

The Pillars of
Stress Resilience
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The Elements of Stress Reactions

People often say that they thrive on stress, that stress is energizing and how they get things done. However, they are not actually describing stress, they are describing a state of positive engagement—where they feel ready, willing, and able to succeed in the challenges they face. Positive engagement is a fundamentally forward-moving experience, in which people “lean in” to challenges.

In contrast, in a stress reaction we suffer from the emotional and behavioral reactivity of a “fight or flight” response. We might experience this state as anxiety, frustration, anger, being overwhelmed, feeling helpless, or another reaction that is full of emotional tension. Our behavioral impulses are to lash out at others or to avoid the situation in some way, neither of which are likely to truly resolve the problem; rather, they are likely to prolong or worsen the dilemmas by causing negative reactions from others that create more stress for ourselves, in a self-perpetuating downward cycle.

All of this means that the times we need to the most capable and full of judgment are the times we are least prepared to do so—and there are consequences that typically just make things worse. Further, the mind/brain/body may also wear down from accumulated stress and implode into the demoralization, cynicism, and emotional fatigue of burnout, so it behooves us to both prevent burnout and foster rejuvenation if burnout does occur.

So... How can we master stress and build positive engagement?  The answer is to develop Stress Resilience “from the inside out”—through conscious and strategic improvement in the functioning of our own minds, brains, and behavior. In other words, we can deliberately and intentionally develop capacities for reducing stress reactions and increasing positive engagement. This evolution comes through development of specific Stress Resilience skills and abilities. 

The Pillars of Stress Resilience

Composure Being cool, calm, and collected even in pressure situations.  Develop physiological skills for calming your nervous system; and mindfulness skills for activating brain areas involved in self-control, while reducing activity in the areas of the brain triggering emotional reactivity. 
Meaning Assuring a sense of significance about your professional and personal pursuits. Identifying “touchstone values” will provide foundations for decision-making and action. They ensure a compass for prioritizing, navigating competing demands, managing obstacles, correcting course when necessary, and perseverance. The more you can create alignment between your touchstone values and your decisions and actions, the more you can possess a sense of significance and commitment to what you do, and the better it is for healthy engagement and deeply felt fulfillment.
Mindset Adopt a progress-oriented perspective, even (and perhaps especially) in the face of difficulties. Develop capacities for creating, appreciating, and building on the good; and for framing and addressing negative experiences in ways that are productive and build toward your objectives.
Social Connection No one is an island, and the highest achieving and happiest people recognize the roles that others play in their success and fulfillment. One aspect of social connection is to develop a “success network” of people you trust as confidants, advisors, and for support when the going gets tough; and another is to develop perspective and skills for bringing positive responses from others, both for general benefit and when in difficult circumstances that require joint effort.
Physical Health How habits of physical self-care improve mood, and support and complement the psychologically healthy habits represented in the other pillars.

These Pillars can each stand on their own as beneficial, and of course are even more powerful when employed together as antidotes to stress. They are the foundations of Stress Resilience.