Stress is not just your fate. Resilience expert Patricia von Moos explains how to manage stress situations better.
Ms von Moos: Why can some people deal with stress better than others?
There are certainly people who are better equipped to cope with stress because of their genetic make-up. But we are also able to change difficult stressful behaviour that we have learned over the course of our lifetime.
Even if you are already grown up?
Definitely, but it is important to tackle it in small steps. Many people are rather impatient about the pace of their change processes.
You probably need a strong will.
Will is unquestionably a part of it. However, it seems to me that it is more important to be motivated and recognise meaning in this change.
And how do you learn psychological resilience?
Resilience is a resource-oriented approach. This means we try to find out what protection factors we already have. At the same time, we train a new protection factor, which can help us in stressful situations.
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What protection factors are there?
The ability to live in the moment would be one of them. Or the attitude of seeing things in a realistic-optimistic way rather than negative. Or the willingness to maintain your network of relationships on a regular basis, even if you are really busy at work.
And all these behaviours can be learned?
Of course. How we react under pressure, stress and strain is something we have learned. When we are in a state of stress, these programmes run inside of us without us realising it. Every behaviour that we have learnt, we can also retrain.
And what would that look like?
The neurosciences have shown in recent years that behavioural patterns develop in neural pathways in the brain. New links are created by creating new patterns. We call these "neural trails”. In stress management, we leave the "Autobahn" and create a new trail with new stress-free behaviour.
Can this be done alone or is assistance needed?
In most cases, it does not require long-term counselling or therapy. It is helpful to find out what protection factors you already have and which ones are missing. Coaching provides support in the analysis of your own protection factors. Then you decide which protection factor – only one at a time – you want to develop further. Usually you select the one that is most lacking in stressful situations.
And when you’ve found it?
Then you practise using a new behaviour pattern that strengthens this protection factor. And at a certain point the old negative pattern is no longer active, and the new, positive one is automated.
How long does it take?
This varies from person to person and depends on how much the person suffers and how ready they are to leave their comfort zone.
What do you have to do to maintain the newly learned behavioural pattern?
Once it is learned or automated, the chances are good that it will stay.
Interesting. Sounds easy.
And it is. The important thing is to say to yourself in a stressful situation: "It's just the way it is now.” A lot of people think they should immediately look for solutions. It is more sensible to first try to regain your inner balance again, for example, by studying your emotions and learning to accept them. Acceptance is a very important protection factor. Once you resist and tell yourself: "Why do I react like that? That’s not alright, I shouldn’t do that! ” – that’s when it gets difficult. With internal resistance, certain cerebral regions are no longer available for constructive solutions.
So you don’t always have to be strong?
By embracing acceptance, we show inner strength. Self-criticism only serves to exacerbate our inner stress. Self-compassion, however, supports us. You should say to yourself: "Yes, that's really bad for me, and I understand. I will support myself now and see what I can do.” Even though this may sound like a victim role for some, it achieves exactly the opposite: In this case, we are no longer victims, but the creators of our lives.
What is your most important message to people who want to protect themselves against stress?
Strengthen your mental immune system! Learn to distinguish between stresses that you can influence and those you cannot. There are simply external sources of stress, caused by society, which the individual cannot really influence. That is why it is more important to focus on internal stress.
Are they so much easier to influence?
In my opinion, yes. With the right strategies, we can eliminate them one hundred percent with a functioning self-awareness and self-regulation.
This sounds a lot like self-control. Is it necessary to harden?
Not at all. Resilient people are not hardened, they are flexible. Rigid things break under pressure and strain. Flexible, elastic things have the ability to adapt. People with a high resilience create it through this elasticity, to grow with difficult challenges that breaks others.
“Resilient people are not hardened, they are flexible.”
So not hardened, but willing to adapt. Is that healthier?
In a fast-paced world like ours where changes are everyday reality, certainly. Adaptation does not mean buckling. Resilient people can easily adapt themselves to new living conditions without losing themselves or remaining true to themselves.
And what would that look like?
Imagine that you receive new rules from your supervisor that must be observed in the future that you do not agree with. You now have the choice: Either you are annoyed like mad and think to yourself inwardly what negative consequences these new rules will have for you. Or you take a resilient attitude, i.e. you try to imagine the positive effect these rules could have for you and your daily work and which behaviour might help you to benefit from these rules in future. This is where flexibility comes in: You are able to adapt to changing situations, flexibly and constructively.
Are resilient people happier people?
I would not draw this conclusion directly. I would rather say resilient people know what helps them in difficult situations, and they apply it. With this attitude, they master stressful life situations more easily than others and this knowledge gives them inner peace, strength and confidence.