Stress hardiness is the ability to withstand high levels of stress without suffering illness or reduced enjoyment of life.
The concept of stress hardiness allows us to understand why the same levels of stress can affect two individuals differently. One person might become ill and stay that way for months, while another person, in the same situation, can seem to carry on without any signs of diminished functioning. He or she can actually be strengthened by stress.
Stress hardiness underscores the important role that psychological factors play in determining our reaction to stress. When stress-resilient and stress-vulnerable personalities are compared, some interesting differences emerge. Stress hardiness has been associated with a sense of passion and purpose in life. This emotional connection with life can generate feelings of personal power and control over life events. It also begets an active commitment to ourselves. A loving and courageous connection to life can help us see the problems and circumstances that generate stress as challenging rather than threatening.
Our response to stress depends on the nature of our conditioned personality and our self-image. If we have a negative self-image, our habitual patterns of thinking and feeling will contribute to our feeling bad about ourselves and powerless and helpless to modify and change the circumstances that we are facing. If I lose a tennis match, for example, I might conclude that I am a bad athlete who cannot really do anything to improve my game to be better able to compete with others. Or if I am a salesperson and I have not made a sale in the past week, I may fall prey to feeling personally rejected and forlorn. These are classic stress-vulnerable attitudes.
A stress-vulnerable attitude can be eliminated and a stress-hardy one developed. To do so, we must discover, identify and modify our conditioned self-image. Then we can dismantle the negative patterns of thinking and feeling that lead us into experiences of powerlessness and frustration. These patterns are like an endless stream that picks us up and carries us away into the very predictable territory of feeling less than or other than we should be.
Stress-vulnerable patterns include the following:
1. Mistaking feelings for facts. I did not make the sale and I feel rejected and, therefore, I am a failure. I am not worth anything.
2. Black-and-white reasoning. I either succeed or I fail. Anything less than doing it completely right means that I have fallen short of doing it right.
3. Emphasizing negative events. Telling myself that only what I have not accomplished is the true measure of my worth and value. My successes either don’t really count for anything, or I believe that I was just “lucky” when I succeeded.
4. Obsessing over painful events. Dwelling on an experience from a painful vantage point that causes me shame and embarrassment. I try to make a sale, and someone throws me out and calls me an idiot. I keep going over it again and again, each time feeling as if I am actually an idiot.
5. Worshipping the “should” god. I should never feel bad, insecure, lonely, frightened or inadequate. I should always say the right thing. I should never be late. I should always be a great conversationalist. I should be more like the person on TV, in the movie, in the song, in the book, etc.
6. Inflate and exaggerate the negative. Because the publisher did not like the first chapter of the book, it is not worth writing. Because you were late for the meeting, I do not want to work with you. Because I feel anxious and depressed today, something must be very wrong with me.
7. Here comes the judge. I am a failure, instead of, I failed to keep that sales account. I lost my marriage because I was bad, instead of, sometimes I was not the greatest husband or wife.
Through self-observation, we can become aware of how we get trapped into these stress-promoting patterns. This can serve as a foundation for insight and change. Stress hardiness is a goal worth striving for, and with the right tools and knowledge, it’s easy to achieve. Stress hardiness improves quality of life on all levels.
Dr. Jim Manganiello is a clinical psychologist and diplomate-level medical psychotherapist based in Groveland and West Boxford. He is also an author and teacher focusing on stress, personal growth, meditation and “inner fitness.” His book “Unshakable Certainty” is available on Amazon. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.drjimmanganiello.com.