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