When you’re going through hell… keep going.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that one of the most important life skills to cultivate is resilience. It perhaps seems a little odd to frame resilience as a “skill”, rather than a inherent trait, but the habits and strategies that can help one to cope with stress can certainly be learned.
One of the biggest challenges with resilience is recognising when the stress that you are under is something to be coped with, and when it is an indicator that you are in a toxic environment or situation that you should leave. There are times when the answer is clear enough: an abusive or demeaning SO, a job that is neither financially nor emotionally rewarding, living in a neighbourhood in which you feel unsafe. The problem comes from the ambiguous cases: a job that is OK and pays well, but gives occasional bursts of stress that are wearing you down; the love affair with a person who is mostly supportive and kind, but can also be evasive or manipulative; the neighbourhood that has great house prices and is fine really, but you sometimes get spooked when walking home.
Self-awareness and self-honesty, as always, are the best methods for distinguishing between cases. Are you being oversensitive about the gang that hangs out on the corner of your street, or are you genuinely fearful?
It’s not always easy, but we can usually tell if we’re overreacting, or if we’re actually suffering appropriate stress to a personal trigger that is hard-wired and pointless to try and unlearn. In the short term, bursts of stress like this happen all the time and in all places, and are not a major cause for concern. Resilience really comes into play when we are in a situation where the stress has become decoupled from the immediate stimulus, and turned into a kind of background black-cloud of low level anxiety that is always present. The ability to keep going until you are out of that situation is what I mean by resilience. The ability to cope until you have taken purposeful steps to a new environment that is less stressful for you.
One of the major benefits of developing resilience is that the emergence of limerence can be a common reaction to stress. It is certainly a spectacular distraction from the proximate cause of stress, and a response that your body has learned gives reliable pleasure in the form of positive reward feedback (dopamine hit), as a counter to the negative reinforcement of chronic stress. Eventually, of course, the limerence can transition to being a new source of stress. So, in fact, coping before it sets in would be a win-win, and resilience to stress can give automatic resilience to limerence.
The good news is that philosophers, psychologists and therapists are in almost unanimous agreement about the best strategies for stress mitigation. The even better news is that all of them are free!
We evolved in a natural environment. Long periods of humankind’s history were characterised by repetitive and arduous labour that required patience and singlemindedness. Sources of stress were mainly urgent and short lived. Within this framework, the autonomic response to stress – fight or flight – was not focussed on dealing with an overdue Powerpoint presentation on sales projections, or daily deadlines for filing copy with your spittle-projecting editor. Getting out into nature forces us to adjust to the diurnal pace of the natural world. Sunrise and sunset. Cycles of birth, feeding, mating and death. The time scale of seasons and weather and growth anchor us to the pace of life that we are suited to.
We don’t need to go back to living in hovels and hand-tilling the soil to recapture this. Spending time in the natural world seems to automatically pacify. The sussuration of a breeze through the trees. Watching a bird of prey gracefully circle on a thermal current over a small wood. The surf crashing over rocks and sucking back over shingle. It’s built-in mindfulness in a slow-paced and tranquil environment.
It works even better if you can combine this with…
Both gentle, regular exercise (such as a daily walk in the countryside) and hard physical exertion (such as crossfit) have huge benefits for resilience. They help with general cardiovascular health, burn off short term stress, and help you sleep. All massive benefits.
The philosophers are united on this one: good friends help with mental health, happiness and peace of mind. Good friends, mind. Friends of the Aristotlean mode. Social congress, empathy, fresh perspectives, distraction from troubles, and sharing of burdens. Good friends offer all these. LO’s don’t count.
4) Daily closure
This last one is a bit more obscure, but linked to the need for good quality sleep. I have suffered on and off my whole adult life with insomnia, often caused by stress (and sometimes by limerence). One of the best ways to lessen the severity for me has been to strive for daily “closure”. To end the day in a consciously final way. To make a list at the end of the working day of all the things to be done tomorrow (so I don’t lie awake fretting about what the priorities are, and panicking about all the jobs I’ve forgotten). To turn off screens and noise at least half an hour before bed. To try (often vainly, I admit, as I type away) to preserve the bedroom for two tasks – neither of which should be work or blogging. I try to get into bed with a mind at peace, knowing that the plans for the next day have been put in place, and that worrying in the dark will not help in any way. It works more often than not.
All of these 4 ideas are easy, obvious and simple to implement. And yet, it takes so long to truly learn the lesson of it and consistently put these good habits into practice. The lure of passive entertainment, of booze and junk food, of limerent reverie and idle fantasy – all routes to easy gratification but lasting ennui. Finding the will to purposefully alter our habits to incorporate these virtues into our lives is surprisingly hard. It is a curiosity of the human condition that we can recognise wisdom but struggle so hard to implement it. Resilience comes from patiently insisting to yourself that you will make the virtuous choice, gain the benefit of health, peace and fulfillment, and live more wisely.