The definition of stress varies but is generally defined as the body’s reaction to internal or external events that require a physical and or emotional response. Stress is a subjective experience and one’s perception often dictates response choices. Distortions in how we perceive reality becomes problematic when individuals misinterpret an experience and respond inappropriately.
This can and has resulted in tragic consequences ranging from destruction of families, friendships, and careers to International conflict and war.
Despite its potential to do great harm, stress has many positive benefits. It motivates us to complete daily activities in a timely fashion. Stress also challenges us to aspire to our full potential. It moves us out of harms way when we are confronted with dangerous situations and promotes acts of altruism during times of crisis. Unfortunately, our fast paced, goal oriented lifestyle allows stress to take on an unhealthy life of its own.
Many of us are guilty of participating in a frantic scramble to be more, do more, and have more. This need for external validation, regardless of the cost, transforms daily life into one stressful experience after another. Americans are so connected we are disconnected. E-mail, cell phones, text messaging and numerous other forms of impersonal communication create the need to be constantly “on.” This breakdown in our face to face interactions with family and friends further exacerbates our sense of urgency and elevates subjective levels of distress.
Unfortunately, as we bid farewell to the 20th century and greeted the 21st many external events generated stress reactions throughout the stratum of American society: The World Trade Center disaster. Devastation left behind in New Orleans by hurricane Katrina. The collapse of American financial markets triggering a chain reaction of unemployment, foreclosures, and family conflict. Ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the toll this takes on our military personnel and their families. National debt that now exceeds the unimaginable trillion dollar mark and continues to grow exponentially. And, most recently, the deadly attack at the Fort Hood military base in Killeen, Texas.
World events also contribute to subjective levels of distress. We are now part of a world community. An event that occurs in one part of the world generates ripples that directly or indirectly impact all human beings. The media brings to our door steps the reality that thousands of people in third world countries die from starvation and disease every day. Our fellow human beings perish as a result of earthquakes, tsunamis and mudslides because many countries lack adequate infrastructure to facilitate timely intervention. Unemployment in America is at a 26-year high and more families are losing homes than purchasing them. Graphic images and sounds from the combat zone in “real time” flood our senses with the suffering and fear felt by troops on both sides of the battlefield.
So how does one promote the natural recovery from stressful and even traumatic experiences? A critical factor in this process is resilience. Resilience is best defined as one’s ability to acknowledge and accept thoughts, feelings, and emotions from both happy and distressing times in our lives. Resilience involves a willingness to continue moving toward ones chosen values and goals regardless of the experiences we encounter during this journey called life. The combat veterans I serve on a daily basis are living proof that resilience persists even after an individual encounters horrific trauma.
As a survivor of my father’s sudden death during my youth, my sister’s mental illness and subsequent suicide, watching my mother slowly decline into an abyss called Alzheimer’s Disease, and the premature birth of my deaf-blind son I speak with some degree of credibility about resilience. As I struggled to make sense of and move beyond these life changing events, my own personal resilience motivated me to author 5 books, present dozens of motivational workshops, and become a more compassionate and sensitive therapist, wife, mother, and friend.
For those of us working in mental health, our task is to assist individuals in the rediscovery of their personal resilience. To support and encourage their efforts as they aspire to create meaningful lives. The ability to embrace joy, grieve deeply, and willingly apply the wisdom thrust upon us by both ordinary and extraordinary life events is what ultimately determines our ability or inability to manage life challenges.