Dismantling Stress, Acceptance + Change

This is the third post in a series on Adapting to Stress and Building Resilience Through the Pandemic.

  • The pandemic and other events of the past two years are objectively stressful.

  • We have learned some new skills (“silver linings”), like how to “ride loosely in the saddle”, be flexible, pivot frequently, and regularly problem solve (yea!) and there are more actionable tools we can learn to help us through the chronic stress.

  • No one is immune to the biopsychosocial effects of the past two+ years, though there is a lot of individual variability.

  • Social and emotional needs are requiring more intention and energy to address and/or are going unmet.

  • The well-being of our children is extremely important AND we have perhaps forgotten how hard this is on the adults, who are worn out.

  • We have largely shifted from an acute stress response to that of chronic stress.

  • Chronic background stress demands more cognitive load.

  • Heavier cognitive load makes it harder to function optimally.

  • There are things we can do to mitigate the effects of chronic stress like building in time for reflection and shifting our mindset around specific challenges from one that views the situation as a threat to one that sees it as a challenge instead.

Part 3: Dismantling Stress: Acceptance + Change


This particular post is full of useable information (I hope!), and our brains can absorb only so much at a time, right? Take your time--gather the parts that resonate and ditch the ones that don't. We are dismantling stress here, not adding to your list of stuff to worry about and perfect!

 

There is a form of therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or “DBT” that offers the following perspective:

pain + non-acceptance = suffering | pain + acceptance = ordinary pain

The idea echoes concepts shared in Part 1: Suffer Well, and holds that we all experience painful, distressing, or uncomfortable events and emotions, and when situations or feelings feel out of our control, we tend to fight against them (non-acceptance), and this is what leads to suffering. The fight can take different forms (e.g., numbing and denial, dysregulated behavior, emotional outbursts, unhealthy or extreme choices). In essence, we unintentionally give ourselves a “double dose” of pain and suffering. And since the brain gets good and efficient at anything it does repeatedly (do I sound like a broken record?!), we may habituate these responses or get stuck in a follow-on struggle with things like substances or challenging relationships. When we can accept reality (a skill known as “radical acceptance” in DBT), the pain becomes “ordinary”. We do not give fuel to internal (and external) fires. Instead, we create space for the “ordinary magic” of resilience to kindle, for healing to occur. The process of dismantling stress and its effects can begin.


Through acknowledgement and acceptance, a new pattern emerges. To be clear, these words are not synonymous with resignation or agreement. In fact, “The primary dialectic within DBT is between the seemingly opposite strategies of acceptance and change”, according to the University of Washington Center for Behavioral Technology, and the academic home of DBT’s creator, Dr. Marsha Linehan. Acceptance and change then, are imperatives for growth and flourishing.

So using the pandemic-driven chronic stress identified in Part 2: Chronic Stress Requires More Brain Power, and considering that:


pain + non-acceptance = suffering | pain + acceptance = ordinary pain


you can dismantle stress, i.e., minimize damage, move through distress, and improve health and well-being, by accepting the reality of the pandemic and its effects on your life, and leaning into existing healthy coping skills, while you cultivate new ones.


These nuggets from DBT underscore findings that come from the study of how humans cope with adversity, and why some people are more resilient than others. Out of the resiliency research, a range of tools have been developed and two are highlighted here for you to explore--one in the acceptance realm and one in the change realm: “hitting the pause button” (or making time to pause and reflect) and adopting a threat versus challenge appraisal perspective. More about each below...

Pause and Reflect

This may be harder to practice than it sounds, so if you need some inspiration, remember the genius of Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”


Many of us do not stop to reflect on what is making us uncomfortable, what we are challenged by (physiologically, emotionally, environmentally), or how we think about things, because we’re in “go-mode” and reacting in real-time, all-the-time. There is no space “between stimulus and response”.


Furthermore, the pandemic has germinated uncertainty, which is unsettling. When something is unsettling, it generates a range of experiences that affect our minds, brains, bodies, and in turn, impact those around us (and our environments). When we allow ourselves to pause and reflect, we embrace a mindful approach to the uncertainty. We open ourselves to what is going on in the present moment, and this can usher in a new awareness of ourselves and others, as well as a range of divergent or creative solutions to problems.

This is a metacognitive process—a form of self-care, really—and you might have to dig in (and iterate) to connect with your feelings and needs at this juncture; to adopt “radical acceptance”. After all, if we never slow down enough to reflect, it is awfully hard to identify the signal within the noise.


So, what method(s) might work to help you hit pause?


You can meditate, journal, walk in nature--start by trying something that appeals to you. The key is to find things that help you:

  • connect with your needs, values, and hopes

and

  • adopt practices that generate positive emotions, build psychological capital, and reduce your stress

The main point is to SLOW. THINGS. DOWN. so that the mind, body, and brain can catch up before you get “out over your skis”; to make room for your internal experience in service to your health and well-being.


This is a personal journey, and you deserve self-compassion in it.

Taking a pause allows you to check-in with yourself to ask questions like:

  • “Are there things I could do to make this chronic stress (or other challenges) more manageable?”

  • “Do I need to ask for help or skill-up in some area?”

  • “Am I making room for play?”

  • “Do I have support I can call on?”

  • “Do I need a hug?!”

Here are a few experiments to try. Start slowly and be realistic, you over-achievers out there--Rome [and human-ing] wasn’t built in a day:

  • When interacting with others, ask yourself if you are listening to understand or listening to respond. Practice slowing things down to give you and the other(s) some time and space to be seen and heard (and maybe surprised).

  • Take 2-3 slow breaths before responding or reacting to someone or something. Notice your internal physical and emotional experiences and how they may change (e.g., heart rate, blood rushes to face, anger, pride, joy, etc.).

  • Designate time (maybe morning or before bed) to consider your upcoming day, observe feelings and thoughts without judgement, consider where the friction points might be and what psychological and other resources you can employ if distress flares up.

  • Identify a specific time of day to reflect and let your mind wander without an agenda. Divergent and creative thinking needs space and time to germinate, so if you are always scheduled or externally focused, you’re missing the benefits of this generative mental freedom.

  • Sleep on it (or take a break from it)! During sleep we consolidate memory, ideas connect, and solutions come into full view. Have you ever awoken with a brilliant idea? There’s a reason for that. Similarly, if you take a break from a project and turn your attention to something else, when you return to the work, you will often see things with fresh eyes. You can apply this to relationships too.

  • Practice Dr. Marc Brackett’s “meta-moment” exercise when you feel stressed or overwhelmed.

Once you have experimented, you will probably start to identify the signal in the noise---and importantly, to connect with YOU. So what can you do with some of the insights? (I thought you’d never ask!)


In some cases, simply discovering something about yourself or giving yourself a brain break before returning to a project, will be enough to reduce stress. Dr. Dan Siegel coined the phrase "name it to tame it" to describe brain processes whereby the intensity of emotions (like the fight, flight, freeze phenomenon) can be neutralized and the limbic system calmed, by putting words to felt emotions. In addition to the stabilizing effect that a feeling of calm can bring, when you "name it to tame it", the brain will make room for slower thoughts and responses instead of "flying off the handle" or defaulting to a melt-down. Establishing a new habit of pausing and reflecting can in-and-of-itself, be an act of self-care that reduces your heart rate and levels of cycling stress hormones in your body, and makes you feel more equipped to tackle demands.


In other cases, you may need to do something with the insights drawn from a pause and reflect experiment in order to decimate the discomfort and harvest the benefits. This might involve creative problem solving, or a mental reappraisal as described next.


Danger or Opportunity?

We know that cognitive skills support mental flexibility and other executive functions (EF), like working memory and inhibitory control. Healthy EF buttress us in radical acceptance, and help us lean into healthy ways of coping...and change. Remember, the ultimate goals are growth and flourishing (while “suffering well”)...and having some fun along the way!

The threat versus challenge skill supports cognitive flexibility and change, according to Harvard's Dr. Shelley Carson. It is a framework for appraising life’s circumstances as challenges rather than threats, of harvesting opportunity from otherwise stressful moments, of working with new insights gained through reflection. It is a tool for dismantling stress.

First, a word on stress…there are two parts of it:

(1) the objective level of stress levied by a stressor itself—a hurricane flooding your home is objectively stressful, for example

(2) your appraisal of your ability to handle the stress/stressor (effects of the flood)

Second, you have three levers to pull when coping with stress:

(1) change or eliminate the stressor (cannot always do this)

(2) change the meaning of the stress / your appraisal of it

(3) change your response to the stress (e.g., you can change your behavior or your habituated “action tendency,” your emotional response, or your thoughts about it)

Hold these in your mind.

When we believe in our own ability to tackle adversity—however challenging—we experience fewer negative outcomes. This does not mean that you already possess all tools needed to prevail. It merely means that because you believe in your own ability to recruit and access the needed resources (e.g., knowledge, skills, social support, instrumental supports), you are more likely to find a resilient outcome. By extension, if you reframe an appraisal from one of danger or fear to one of opportunity or challenge, research suggests that it becomes easier to positively address the adversity. You are essentially pulling a different “lever” and altering your beliefs about your ability to handle the objective stress.


Consequently, if I am afraid of something (threat), I am more likely to retreat, but if I view it as a challenge (opportunity), I am more likely to spring into action, to start trying! Seeing something as a surmountable challenge widens the playing field. It makes room for divergent and creative thinking.


Now, hitting your "internal pause button" can you think of:

  • a current problem that you might reframe as a challenge instead of a threat

  • what you notice in your body (does your heart rate change, for example) when you reappraise an experience from threateni