By Dr. John Schinnerer
(Note: There are free audio meditation files down below in this article. Just click on the link to get yours.)
A client of mine went through a brutal divorce recently. His wife dragged them into litigation for three years, at a cost of over $350,000 in attorney fees. She went so far as to litigate against his parents in an attempt to get at his parents’ money. It was an incredibly stressful three years. Whenever the doubts crept into his head (e.g., “I can’t take this”, “I can’t deal with this.”), my client learned to challenge those thoughts and replace them with “Yes, this is difficult. It is challenging… AND I can deal with this.” To tap into the strength of Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG), he constantly reframed it as a valuable learning experience which he would later use to help other men going through divorce. He gained great confidence in his own resiliency, thinking “If I can survive this divorce, I can survive anything!” This gave his struggle meaning. And it kept his stress manageable.
We are in the same boat now. Several layers of stress have just been added to our plate with the onset of COVID-19 — financial stressors, health worries, family pressures, an uncertain future, and more. The stress we are under now is enormous. Stress is inevitable and it is manageable. It all depends on having the right tools to deal with it.
What Is Stress?
Stress is the general alarm reaction sounded by your body (i.e. the nervous system) when you perceive that a demand is being made on you that you cannot handle. There are 2 types of stress…
Good stress (i.e., eustress) where you use the stress alarm — your bodily cues — to focus your attention, get the message, act on the message, and then release the stress. Where stress enhances performance, it is considered good stress.
Bad stress (i.e., distress) which is chronic, long-term stress. Distress can cause damage to your body on a number of levels – difficulty thinking clearly, damage to arteries, killing brain cells, and limiting the number of options open to you in terms of how you think and act. Chronic, ongoing stress that is not resolved through learning new tools may lead to anxiety, depression, or physical illness such as headaches, aches and pains, and nausea.
The major difference between eustress and distress is determined by the gap between a situation, your beliefs that you are up to the challenge, and the resources you have to manage the stress.
How Do I Know If I’m Stressed? What Are The Bodily Cues For Which To Look?
While the answer to these questions may seem obvious, I’ve worked with many men who don’t realize just how stressed they are. They mistake relaxation for being tired. They are unaware of the degree of muscle tension they are holding in their bodies. They are experts at suppressing subtle bodily signals, having had a lifetime of practice.
Cues To Identify Stress May Include:
An adrenaline rush
A perceived lack of control
Elevated heart rate
Inability to calm down/relax
Physical aches and pains
Diarrhea or constipation
Chest pain (often in the middle of the chest)
Muscle tension (most often in neck, shoulders, and jaw)
Increased alcohol, nicotine or drug consumption
Nervous habits increase (toe-tapping, nail-biting, etc.)
How Does Stress Work?
1. The Bodily Alarm Is Sounded
You have an awareness of a stressful situation. The body sounds the alarm — “Woop, woop, woop!” Adrenaline and cortisol are produced and dumped into the bloodstream to activate the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-flight-freeze response. This narrows the possible ways you can act and think. Now you are focused on fighting back, getting away, or stopping in your tracks.
If the stressor continues, some means of adapting to it is needed. Your body will attempt to adapt, but eventually, your resources get used up and depleted.
Once the bodily resources are used up, the body cannot sustain normal functioning. The initial symptoms of stress may re-emerge (e.g. perspiration, raised heart rate, etc.). Long-term, chronic stress can result in illnesses such as ulcers, depression, diabetes, digestive system issues, and heart problems.
This is one of the reasons why 10s of millions of people across the world are struggling right now with low productivity. It’s largely due to the exhaustion which has set in now that the body has been stressed for over a month.
How Do I Manage Stress?
Step One: Identify the stress in the moment. Tune in to the present moment and what is going on in your body. Quickly be aware when bodily cues are arising which indicate a stressful situation.
Step Two: Turn off the alarm by activating the parasympathetic nervous system – the Relaxation Response. This is huge. Many people I work with are great at activating the stress response (fight-flight-freeze) and terrible at turning on their Relaxation Response. You must practice relaxation skills when things are calm so you have a chance at turning the Relaxation Response on when things are stressful and chaotic.
How Do You Turn On The Relaxation Response?
Mindfulness (You can download Dr. John’s mindfulness for beginners by clicking here).
Take a nap
Doing a kind act for others
Loving-kindness meditation (Metta) (You can download Dr. John’s meditation for free by clicking here).
Progressive muscle relaxation
Watch a funny video
Step Three: Remember that courage is the antidote to fear, anxiety, and stress. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is overcoming fear. Take small, concrete actions to keep moving forward in a constructive direction. Reframe the question as
“What am I willing to try?”
…in order to make change exciting, rather than paralyzing.
IMPORTANT: Challenge thoughts such as ‘I can’t deal with this.’ “I can’t take any more of this.’ ‘This is too much for me.’ “I can’t handle this.” All these thoughts are lying to you. They are not true. Refuse to buy into the bullshit of false thoughts.
REPLACE those thoughts with ‘Yeah, this is tough AND I can deal with this!” or “Ok, this is challenging AND I can do this!” or “I’m having a hard time now AND I can handle this.”
Post-Traumatic Growth (or PTG) refers to the positive life changes that occur for many people following a traumatic life event. There can still be the residue of PTSD – stress, images, anxiety, flashbacks, etc. And just like PTSD, PTG requires severe crisis rather than mere stress.
Research has found that those people who focus on the growth they can experience as a result of difficulties have been shown to be more resilient in the face of adversity. And who doesn’t encounter adversity in life?! And who doesn’t want to be more resilient?!
Post-Traumatic Growth requires a shattering of the lens through which you see the world. It necessitates a breaking of one’s basic beliefs about life and the world and the way in which it works. Then, a rebuilding of the lens by picking up the shattered piece and reassembling them — a fresh chance to form a new, more positive, more inclusive, more loving framework.
The essential paradox that emerges is “My struggle has produced something of deep value. I am simultaneously more vulnerable and have more strength and resiliency.”
What’s more, studies show that PTG is accompanied by real-life changes. According to recent research by Tedeschi and Calhoun, there are 5 areas of change that result from PTG:
1. A greater appreciation of life and a changed set of priorities
2. Warmer, more intimate relationships with others
3. A greater sense of personal strength
4. Recognition of new possibilities for one’s life
5. Spiritual development
Research done following Hurricane Katrina shows exposure to trauma led to Post-Traumatic Growth for many. The following strengths increased after the hurricane: 1) Religiousness, 2) Gratitude, 3), Kindness, 4) Hope, and 5) Bravery.
Tragic, difficult times demand that we look inward to see a different view of ourselves, our species, and of life itself. This new view brings meaning to that which is unfolding. When you feel trapped, when you are overcome with anger or sadness, try, try, and then try again to see from a new perspective.
Tragedy masks the opportunity for growth.
The surest way out of an untenable situation is to change your perspective and view the situation as a challenge to which you are meant to rise. Challenge yourself by asking,
“What am I supposed to learn from this?”
Your answer will usually involve a human strength or value, such as compassion, interconnectedness, gratitude, resiliency, gratitude, seeing others, spirituality, or family. Your answer will lead to a deeper connection with yourself, your loved ones, and humanity.
The challenge is to find meaning in the senselessness. Many times, a simple awareness of the lesson or value is all that is necessary to free you from the binds of sadness and anger. If not, the new connection with your core values will fuel your courage to help you find new ways to persevere, survive, and eventually thrive. This meaning may be as simple as “I survived this, so I can survive anything” or “I am more resilient than I dreamt” or “Life is fragile and invaluable and all of it must be treated with respect.”
To return to my example of my client, he experienced a traumatic and challenging divorce, had some symptoms of PTSD – reoccurring, unwanted disturbing memories of the events, having flashbacks of the troubling events (like watching his wife lie to the judge), severe emotional distress and physiological reactions.
Yet he also gradually showed signs of PTG – he understood that he was more vulnerable, his perception of relationships had forever changed, and yet he was stronger and better equipped to face the future.
While suffering a deep sense of betrayal, he simultaneously discovered a deeper appreciation for new friendships, enjoyed less anxiety, found more courage, discovered more determination and perseverance, and had increased spiritual and emotional depth.
That is one of the keys to wisdom — the realization that we frequently have simultaneous, often conflicting, emotions about a particular person or event. And there is plenty of room within us to allow for all those emotions. We can sit with all of those emotions…and be okay.
Exercise To Discover Your Post-Traumatic Growth
So what have you learned as a result of the adversity in your life? The first step is to answer this question…
On paper, jot down 2-3 events in your past about which you feel sad, guilty, ashamed, anxious, or angry.
For each event, come up with at least one hidden, positive meaning or lesson which you can extract. Sit with it. It may take some time and thought.
Some Positive Post-Traumatic Growth Outcomes
You learn new, more adaptive forms of thinking…“If I can withstand that, I can survive anything.”
You discover a new degree of resiliency.
You uncover hidden psychological strengths (e.g. honor, compassion, courage, perseverance, altruism).
You learn to draw strength from your adversity – it hones you, sharpens you, forges you in the fires of life.
You appreciate life and/or relationships more.
You found out who your real friends are.
You learn to trust others more despite having been hurt.
Your spiritual development accelerates.
You appreciate the helpfulness of others;
The quality of your relationships improve.
You discover a greater sense of compassion and belonging.
You are more comfortable with vulnerability and intimacy.
Life is significantly more meaningful.
What have you learned from this pandemic?
About the Author – Dr. John
Dr. John Schinnerer is the host of The Evolved Caveman Podcast, coaching men to greater success and happiness at work and at home. He is a nationally known expert in anger management, positive psychology, stress management, executive development & happy relationships. He was an expert consultant for Pixar’s Inside Out. He has spoken to organizations such as Stanford Medical School, U.C. Berkeley, Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, Gap, and UPS. Dr. Schinnerer has been featured in national media such as U.S. News and World Report, Readers Digest, and SELF Magazine. Also, he has worked with executives from dozens of Fortune 500 companies. He was recently voted Best Executive Coach for 2020 and Best Social Media Content in 2019. Dr. Schinnerer can be found at GuideToSelf.com or TheEvolvedCaveman.com.