In this fast-paced society, we are increasingly stressed for longer periods of time. Dr. Sanjay Gupta – neurosurgeon and Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN – describes an epidemic of chronic stress in the HBO documentary “One Nation Under Stress, with 8 in 10 Americans experiencing stress daily. Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky explains that while stress response originally evolved as a life-saving and coping mechanism to deal with external threats or dangers, we now generate stress responses to non-life-threatening situations including interpersonal conflict, deadlines, health concerns, jobs and finances. The United States of Stress 2019 reports that chronic stress affects people of all gender and ages, particularly younger people, exacting a stunningly toxic toll on the body, brain, mind, and soul. Its ongoing assault wears us down, measurably aging — or “weathering” — our insides, for some of us much more than others. Chronic stress zaps brainpower by damaging neural pathways and skewing judgment. It compromises the immune system. It taxes the heart, kidneys, liver, and brain. Multiple studies show that high stress adversely impacts physical and mental health leading to higher levels of chronic pain, addiction and suicide. Learning to deal with stress can be a powerful addition to our personal-wellbeing arsenal.
The American Psychological Association defines Resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress … It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences. This article explores the relationship between stress and how your brain functions, and simple techniques to “bounce back” to – to build Resilience.
Dr. Amit Sood tells us how. As a physician and professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic he created their Resilient Mind Program. Now executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Well-Being, he’s an internationally recognized expert on proven resilience techniques. “Cognitive and emotional loads we carry have increased progressively over the past two decades” he says; our brains possess a finite ability to lift these loads and get overloaded, “just as our ancestors’ backs were when manual labor was predominant.” This excessive load decreases quality of life, so we have to find ways to increase our lifting capacity if we don’t have ways to reduce it. “Resilience is our capacity – the core strength – to lift the load of life,” he says. It has several components: physical, spiritual, cognitive and emotional. Cognitive resilience relates to the amount a person can remember and handle, while emotional resilience measures the amount of negative emotion one can manage before getting stressed. Research led by Dr. Sood and several others shows that higher resilience correlates with better emotional and physical health, better relationships, success at work and the ability to handle adversity and grow despite downturns.
Our body hosts resilience in the brain and heart, our two main active organs. Heart health impacts physical resilience while cognitive, emotional and spiritual resilience are centered in the brain. “We understand how exercise, diet, sleep and sometimes medications keep the heart healthy and strong,” Dr. Sood explains, “with recent advances in neuroscience we are just learning that how the brain operates is critical to cultivating resilience.”
The evolution of the human brain has given it some operational vulnerabilities which predispose us to chronic illness and premature death. These can be traced back to the instinctive suspicion about everything around them that our ancestors developed in a quest for survival. Suspicion was their means to deploy attention, and is the genesis of our negativity bias today. Their need to constantly scan their environment for external threats has led to our wandering, jumpy attention. Although we have since collectively created a completely different world where the cause of death has shifted from external injury to heart disease and cancer, these brain vulnerabilities persist. Dr. Sood points out that while our brains tire after 90 minutes of cognitive work, we work 12-14-hour days, enabling emotional and cognitive vulnerabilities to manifest and influence our actions. “Nature gives us ‘baseline’ brains and hearts, and we have to keep ‘upgrading’ them through training,” he says, “resilience boils down to becoming aware of how our brain operates – particularly its vulnerabilities – and learning how to overcome them.”
How can you do this? Dr. Sood has developed a structured approach in the Resilient Option. At its core is an integrated three-step process to develop awareness, attention and attitude (positive mindset). First, become aware of the brain’s vulnerabilities and take charge to train its attention and attitude. Second, develop an intentional attention that is strong, focused and immersive. Third, cultivate a resilient mindset or attitude through practices that best resonate with you such as meditation, prayer, music, or working out. This approach enables you to view your world in a broad context instead of a short-term one that could frighten or stress you. The resilient mindset is built around five guiding principles: gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning and forgiveness that reframe your perspective, integrating teachings of several disciplines including psychology, cosmology, spirituality to develop your unique model of self, life and fulfilment. You start by assigning one day in the week to each principle, and develop short specific practices that are emotion- and relationship-centric. Short practices are key for success – Dr. Sood refers to the ‘two-minute rule.’ We all struggle to sustain lengthy practices because of inherent weak attention and the tugs and pulls of our daily lives. In time, you integrate the three steps and five practices into your daily life, pre-emptively experience more joy by the practice of gratitude and compassion, and recover quickly from negative experiences or moments of negative emotion because you are able to more easily find gratitude or compassion through that experience and have learned to accept, find meaning and forgive. You live a life of your choosing, and are not reactive but responsive and intentional. Your energy increases and you develop better relationships. Fifteen years of research and over 30 clinical trials have proven that this approach is easy and powerful, enabling positive changes with little time investment. Find out how resilient you are. Get your resiliency score, and start building it with these tips from Dr. Sood.
With sincere thanks to Simon Matzinger at Unsplash for the use of his beautiful photograph.
Sukham Blog – This is a monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.
Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides information, and access to resources on matters related to health and well-being, aging, life’s transitions including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death in the family and bereavement. If you feel overcome by a crisis and are overwhelmed by Google searches, Sukham can provide curated resource help. To find out more, visit https://www.sukham.org, or contact the author at [email protected].