How do you stay resilient and resourceful when disasters threaten to swamp your boat? When a job is lost, a relationship unravels, cancer is diagnosed, when insecurity and distress seep through your circles of families and friends, how do you let yourself be “affected but not infected?”
Here are six practical tools and resources I’ve found most effective in 20 years of helping my clients cope skillfully with the challenges and crises of their lives.
1. Count to ten before reacting
The folk wisdom of counting to ten before reacting works, because counting to ten gives your brain the few precious seconds it needs for the cortex—your higher brain—to focus and reflect on an event before reacting too hastily. The cortex is the part of your brain than can most powerfully over-ride the stress response and quell the firing of your fear center—the amygdala. It is also the only part of your brain that operates consciously, with awareness.
By counting to ten, you get to draw on conscious, explicit memories in your assessment of what to do next. Your explicit memories tend to be more positive than the earlier implicit-only memories of your lower brain. By counting to ten, you can break the automaticity of old reactive patterns and see clearly, accurately, what’s actually, truly happening. When you reflect on your experience, without reactivity, without distortion, you can respond to any event more flexibly, more wisely, more resiliently.
2. Access memories of resilient coping
Once the cortex is on line, you can access networks of explicit memories of times in the past when you have coped well with disturbing events.
The brain creates self-reinforcing loops of memories than can spiral up into resilience or spiral down into trauma. If you have a memory of having love, even with the loss of a relationship, you can trust you will have love again. If you have a memory of having gotten a job before, even with lay-offs in rough times, you can trust you’ll have a job again.
Even if you have to go back to the third grade to find a moment where you met a moment of distress or disappointment with pluck and determination, find that one moment and nurture it. Nurture a sense of yourself as resilient, brave, resourceful. Take it in as part of your true nature, your innate capacities to cope with the stresses of life, so you can draw on it as you face new stressors now.
3. Activate the calming branch of your nervous system
There are many ways to soothe yourself, some of which will be unique to you. Here are four suggestions that have been tested by research or in my practice.
a. Breathing. Deep belly breathing activates the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system and slows down your reactivity. Breathing slowly, deeply, can de-escalate a full-blown panic attack in a matter of minutes. Remembering to breathe through the day de-stresses you throughout your day, and helps you install calm as your real baseline, not stress as the new normal.
b. Hand on the heart. Neural cells around the heart activate during stress. Your warm hand on your heart center calms those neurons down again, often in less than a minute. Hand on the heart works especially well when you breathe positive thoughts, feelings, images of safety and trust, ease and goodness, into your heart at the same time.
c. Poetry. Because poetry is metaphorical, imagistic, emotion and sense based, reciting poetry activates the right hemisphere of the brain which processes experience in a holistic, imagistic, emotion-sense based mode. Because the right hemisphere of the brain is rich in neuronal connections to the limbic system in the lower brain, including the alarm center and emotional meaning center of the amygdala, snuggling with a partner or a pet, drinking a warm, cup of tea, and reading poetry can soothe and calm your nerves in about ten minutes.
d. Meditation. Sylvia Boorstein’s book, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, speaks to our instinctive and socialized tendencies to do, to act (fight-flight). Following her instructions on compassionate mindfulness meditation is a gentle way to calm the mind and body and let things simply be, over time generating a steady inner calm that sustains you over the long haul.
4. Calm jittery neurons through touch
Modern neuroscience is validating what compassionate people have always known: We are hardwired to be soothed by touch. Warm, safe touch is a stress reducer because it primes the brain to release oxytocin, the hormone of safety and trust, of calm and connect. Oxytocin is the brain’s direct and immediate antidote to the stress hormone cortisol.
When you use touch to activate the release of oxytocin, you are less reactive to stress when disturbing events happen, and can override anxiety and sensations of pain, even in situations stressful to others. A 20-second full-body hug is enough to release oxytocin in the brain, reducing stress in couples. Finding ways to “stay in touch” with loved ones is the best possible antidote to stress and a great buffer against trauma.
Find a friend, partner, or friendly co-worker to exchange five-minute head rubs with, sensual without being sexual. The touch, warmth, and movement can release oxytocin in your brain and calm your fear center, lower your blood pressure and soothe your racing thoughts in a few minutes. The gentle massage of fingers on the scalp, the forehead, the nose, the jaw, the ears, allows you a few moments respite from stress and pressure.
5. Take time to smell the roses
Spending time in nature could be part of slowing down, breathing, coming back to the big picture, re-grouping to cope better. Time in nature also nurtures our brains, thus our functioning, thus our coping.
For instance, spending even ten minutes walking through a park improves your attention and working memory better than walking ten minutes through downtown. Find a way to spend even the smallest increment of time walking through a woods, park, or garden every day. You will be less apt to react in a stressed out way to stressful events.
6. Find the gift in the mistake
It’s so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of criticizing yourself when you’ve made a poor choice or responded badly to a stressful situation. “How could I have been so stupid!” “I can’t believe…!”
It’s important to show up for the challenges of life, take responsibility, yes. Absolutely. But once that’s done, perpetuating the shame or guilt simply perpetuates the stress. And stress inhibits the functioning of the parts of the brain that could wisely discern what to do now.
Much better to turn regrets into lessons. You can re-frame your mistake as learning:
This is what happened.
This is what I did.
This has been the cost.
This is what I learned.
This is what I could do differently going forward…
You can forgive yourself, and move on.