Teach a friend to fish: The Psychology of Resilience, Part I

In the early 20th century, the term stress transitioned from being a term used strictly in the physical sciences to incorporate the biological. The word stress no longer just meant how much of abuse things like steel could take, but was also ascribed to how much of a beating our minds could take both from within and without.

If you are an anxious person or were raised by one or more parents suffering (perhaps unknowingly) of chronic anxiety. You’ll hopefully benefit from this first in a series of articles I’ll be writing on psychological resilience.

If you think you might have chronic anxiety, you’ve probably felt some of the following symptoms:

  • constantly feeling overwhelmed
  • inability to focus
  • inability to complete routine tasks
  • fixation or rumination on negative (maladaptive) thoughts
  • perfectionistic
  • mild to severe paranoia

It’s important to remember that these are just some of the more common symptoms associated with anxiety. Much of the mind is still uncharted territory and our understanding of it is therefore fluid.

Not all stress is bad

The interaction between man and his environment is a dynamic interplay of constant reaction to stimuli, sensory perception, and interpretation. One might even argue that the stress known as Eustress has been a driving force in our evolution. It’s that particular itchy feeling about things being “greener on the other side”, the “what if” factor, and the ingenuity fueled by survival.

Physiologically speaking

Your body is comprised of various systems working together to achieve what is called homeostasis. Simply put, this is a state of equilibrium in which metabolic and regulatory processes are running smoothly allowing the conditions for your everyday existence.

The problem then is when these systems are met with chronic stress. Increasing evidence has shown that such chronic stress can disrupt the body’s own systems of equilibrium and produce lasting physiological and psychological change.

For several years now, research has pointed to the adverse epigenetic effects of chronic stress as possible catalysts for several psychiatric disorders encountered later in life. The common denominator in stress research has been referred to at the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or the HPA axis.

This axis has been accepted as the instrumental center of the famous fight-or- flight response. It is important to note that there is a physiological difference. This center is not engaged when the aforementioned eustress (good stress) is met, rather exclusively with physically and emotionally taxing experiences.

Though we humans are on average exceptionally resilient and healed by the passage of time, strong correlations have been found between traumatic experiences in childhood and adolescence producing negative effects on cognitive and emotional development.

A structure called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is responsible for regulation of the amygdala (producer of adrenaline). It is also the newest part of our brain and responsible for much of the behavior that allows us to get along with each other like inhibition, prudence, along with reading and responding to social cues. Evidence suggests that chronic stress on a PFC still in development, can hinder it’s ability to regulate the fight-or-flight response, resulting in increased fear conditioning.

What now?!

TIME OUT! — RELAX — Breathe.

Applied knowledge is power. Whether you are new to this kind of stuff or it’s old news, if you or someone you know is affected by anxiety, learning some of the basic clockwork can help you better understand it and perhaps even treat it. For many people, stress and anxiety are a product of unresolved unknowns and the juxtaposition of new ones. Yet we forget that to a large extent we are still very much a mystery to ourselves. So dear reader, take it easy on yourself. Remember that you are an extraordinarily complex organism. Be humbled by your limited understanding of it and think of your “self” (whatever you conceive that to be) as the driver of a fantastic machine capable of awesome things. Such a machine will have a steep learning curve but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be amazed at the places you’ll go!

My next piece will dive a little deeper into the neurological mechanisms of stress and a look into critical points in development to be aware of. These points will help you look back on your own life and hopefully see where things might be adjusted to help you reduce anxiety and carry on bravely!

References: A complete list of sources and references for this series will be produced at the end of the final installment.

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