Understanding stress – Part 2: Resilience and Personality
Understanding and regulating stress is becoming more and more important in our times, because chronic stress has a lasting damaging effect on the immune system and on the general mental and physical condition. Our physical reaction to stress is an instinctive and cognitively little influenceable physical state. However, it is possible to identify personal stressors and reduce the intensity of stressful experiences. The following series of articles covers these topics:
1. The stress reaction
2. Resilience and personality
3. Mental hygiene and strengthening of the immune system
Part 2: Resilience and Persponality
It is no secret – people’s ability to remain calm and relaxed in stressful situations varies widely. Some people react very sensitively or quickly irritated, they experience themselves as more thin-skinned than others. A lot of research has been done in this context, for example about high sensitivity, co-dependence, resilience or an excessive sense of responsibility. It became clear, apart from a potential genetic perspective, that it makes sense to take a closer look at how we deal with stress internally and why some people seem to be more resilient than others.
Trauma psychotherapy and attachment-oriented psychodynamic approaches have also specialized in the subject of stress regulation. From this point of view and a little simplified, this process can be presented as follows:
A baby is not yet able to regulate stressful experiences independently. It lives in a symbiotic co-existence with its mother. The experience of hunger or cold is not perceived concretely as such, i.e. it is not mentalized. The baby experiences an unspecific discomfort or pain and is helplessly exposed to it. It experiences stress. In the best case, the parents feel that the child needs something. They turn to him and their facial expressions often reflect what the child is experiencing in the first moment. “Oh… you’re hungry…“. This is the prerequisite for the baby to be able to perceive its inner states increasingly better and more differentiated in the further course of its development and thus to be able to classify them for itself. It is the beginning of our ability to mentalize and thus the ability to experience feelings from a certain age on no longer purely somatically, e.g. as abdominal pain, but as feelings that can be grasped mentally. But such a naming of the states by the parents is of course not enough for the baby. After the parents have reflected the baby’s need or feeling, their facial expressions and tone of voice often change. They begin to change the feeling “well then quickly, if you are so hungry, you probably want to be breastfed”, in her voice you can hear the confidence and the change that is about to come. Slowed down this means: the baby’s stress is absorbed, named and differentiated and then regulated and calmed. This process of co-regulation by the parents is existential for the development of the child. Both neglect and over-regulation can harm the child. A neglect or gross miscommunication between parents and child (if the parents permanently misunderstand the signals of the child) leads to feelings and needs often being experienced in a very somatic and undifferentiated way into adulthood, the ability to calm oneself is then also often developed to a limited extent. But also over-stimulation, a too fast reaction of the parents is not good for the development of the child. The development of the child from co-regulation to autoregulation is then disturbed at this point. Because in the normal development of the child such a process from coregulation to an independent regulation of of one’s own arousal level is a smooth transition.
The personal window of tolerance
Later, as adults, we differ both in the quantity of our stress response and in our ability to calm down and relax. For people who have been well accompanied in their development and who are securely attached, even stronger stressors can still be integrated. They also tolerate rest periods more easily. Your personal “window of tolerance” * (Dami Charf, Window of Tolerance) is wider. To make the reference to my first article: their vegetative amplitude also fluctuates, they experience sympathetic and parasympathetic activation phases, but they are rarely outside this comfort zone. In contrast, the inner window of tolerance of those who were poorly reflected and supported as children is relatively narrow. They experience both too much activation quickly as too much, but also too few stimuli quickly as too little. A rapid change between high activation and rapid overstimulation and depressive experience of inner emptiness is not uncommon. Those affected are either overstimulated or understimulated and both states are highly associated with stress experiences.
So what can people who have learned little to regulate themselves do today as adults to feel more relaxed? It is not possible to go back in time – but it is possible to learn to be a good adult yourself. In moments when we experience ourselves under pressure and the tension becomes too high, in such moments we can pause and start to accompany ourselves anew. We can expose driving thoughts as such and also the moments when we start to attack ourselves. Back to our theory: let us assume that we have internalized the voices and the experience with our parents. The good and supporting as well as the driving and critical voices. So if you want to learn to stay calm, you first have to look for quick and sometimes unconscious reactions, in which we do lasting harm to ourselves. In which we do not accompany ourselves and are not friendly and supportive with ourselves. Sometimes it helps then to pretend: “If I were a relaxed and self-friendly person now: what would I think and do now?”
Andrea Wurst, Dipl. Psych., Coach