This piece first appeared on Thrive.
You’re already a resilience pro. In case you’ve forgotten, your track record proves it. Yet the state of the world has been rather… stressful lately. Whether it’s work, finances, or family, here’s how to put the politics aside and push forward.
1. It’s Not An Interruption, It’s The Plan.
Whenever we miss a flight or catch the flu, we tend to view any misstep in our plans as catastrophic disruptions, knocking us off the path of life progress.
But what if events, good or bad, weren’t a hitch in your life plan, but a part of it?
At 67 years old, Thomas Edison famously began rebuilding his factory the day after it burnt to the ground. He was quoted as saying, “It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
You’ve probably heard of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-based technique known as “reframing,” a way of identifying and then shifting perspectives on negative thoughts. Edison’s story shows us that even in the direst of circumstances, if we can look at a negative event as part of the master plan instead of an impediment, we can lessen its impact and move forward faster.
2. Use Your Words
Just how much do words hurt? Focusing on a single negative word increases activity in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. This prompts the release of stress hormones, leading to impaired brain function. In other words, your brain shuts down, limiting your options. By shifting our vocabulary, however, we can change our brain’s reaction and with it, our situational perspective.
How To: Switch out intense words with softer, more comical variations:
“I have a flat tire. This sucks.” Becomes “I have a flat tire. This is rather inconvenient.”
“I’m so annoyed there’s no wifi.” becomes “I’m quite displeased/chafed/inflamed there’s no wifi.”
While this practice may seem stupid (preposterous!), it’s the linguistic equivalent of having road rage while driving a golf cart. It’s impossible. With a little practice, you’ll soon realize how much vocabulary shifting lessens the emotional intensity of a negative state.
3. Imagine The Worst-Case Scenario
This one comes from the Stoics. We tend to think if we lose our jobs our break up with our partner, the world will end.
But really think about it. What’s the actual worst-case scenario?
Chances are you’d find work or learn how to be single again. Once we acknowledge that the scary unknown isn’t that frightening (or unknown), we can make moves with confidence, knowing that we have our own backs.
4. Step Out of Tunnel Vision
Negative emotions, (like the ones associated with failure) cause the brain to revert to survival mode, leaving one of two choices: Fight or run like hell. We were built this way for a reason. If facing a truly dangerous situation, working outside of these options would prove quite risky.
Unfortunately, we’re creatures of habit, continuously applying the same life-or-death methodology to everyday problems. The good news it that while negative emotions result in this type of perceptual narrowing, the opposite also holds true. Known as “Broaden and Build Theory,” our range of options increases when we access positive states. In other words, every time we’re able “look up” from the problem at hand, we’re teaching the brain it has more options than fight or flight. (2)
How you break out of the fear-imposed tunnel vision doesn’t matter. Anything that helps you gain perspective or shift your emotional state, even temporarily, will help you build skills and resources for future resilience.
5. Ain’t Nobody Got Time For You
Remember that your failures mean a lot more to you than they do to other people. We live in a world where everyone’s the star of their own movie. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ve got a supporting role. Chances are, you’re just an extra. This is not to diminish our importance as individuals, but rather, to increase it by liberating ourselves from a life of decision making based on pleasing others. Life is too short to avoid risk for fear of judgment. Only you get to define failure- if you want to believe it exists at all. So whatever it is, maybe it’s not a misstep but just another one of life’s wonderful experiments.
(1) Bernstein, Andrew. The Myth of Stress: Where Stress Really Comes From and How To Live A Happier and Healthier Life. Simon & Schuster, 2010. 182.
(2) Fox, Elaine. Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: How to Retrain Your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook. Basic Books, 2012. 56.