Stress and resilience

In thinking through my ambitions and hopes for the next five or ten years I’ve also been thinking about my last ten years.

At least for a large stretch of my mid-to-late 20s, I felt like a failure—as much professionally as personally. I was adrift. I didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t feel there was anyone I could really share my heart with in the way that Phillip Halfacre calls “genuine friendship”. It wasn’t until a genuine friendship came into my life and that friend held a mirror up to me that I was, eventually, able to come out of despondency. “Have you considered that you’re depressed?” he asked me. I hadn’t, but I was.

It was around this time that I started, in Jordan Peterson terms, to ”properly orient myself toward the world” and get my life in order. And the confidence that has come from weathering this has helped me weather the storms since. I wonder how much of the rest of life will be a continuing pursuit of the virtues that came out of those experiences—of a love for God and desire for relationship with Christ, of truth-telling and the candor that makes life possible, of genuine friendships pursued with the good of the other at their heart, of courage and the confronting of fears as the way of masculine achievement, etc.

I thought about all of this when reading Dean Burnett’s piece on stress, depression, and “ten words” that can change your life:

So what stresses us out? Failure to meet expectations. Having to do more than we can handle. A loss of status, or living standards, or security, or something or someone important. But all of our expectations, standards, capacities, understandings and baselines are derived from a mental model of how the world works, a model our brains create and maintain based on our memories, experiences and beliefs.

Stress is largely subjective. It often comes from negative changes or influences in our lives, when they occur with too much intensity. That our lives remain positive overall compared with those of others is irrelevant. That’s why questions such as: “What have you got to be stressed about?” don’t make sense. Thanks to how our brain works, if you don’t like something or don’t want it to happen, it can, and will, stress you out. …

Small steps, incremental progress, are something that is emphasised repeatedly on the Cardiff course. This is a way to help break the stress cycle”, which describes how stress becomes chronic and self-sustaining. Let’s start with a relationship breakdown. This causes stress, with low mood, lack of motivation, etc. This leads to reduced socialisation; your friendships suffer, and you end up more miserable, more stressed. So you drink more to feel better, albeit briefly. But this makes you less healthy, more sluggish, and your work suffers. Now your job’s in trouble, your health declining. This causes more stress. So you drink more. Which means more stress. And on and on.

There is no easy fix. But at the very start of the session, we are given a brief, basic set of instructions that could, if adhered to, tangibly reduce stress. There were just 10 words: “Face your fears. Be more active. Watch what you drink.” While simple-sounding, these things conform to what we know about stress, and even mental health problems, in the scientific sense.

Facing your fears is often easier said than done but it’s a valid approach. When we confront something that scares us, that stresses us, we may not enjoy it but we impose certainty on it. All the things that could have happened and had the power to cause stress have been cancelled out.

It’s one of the hardest things, finding those who challenge you in the spirit of true charity and truth to be better, to live virtuously, to strive. The greatest friendships in my life have been those where those challenges, those tensions, are present. And the greatest pain has come from the loss of those where this mutual giving was present but where the relationship comes to an end for whatever reason.

But those scars are as much the signs of a life being lived honestly and properly as they are signs of a particular moment’s pain. And that’s no reason for sadness or stress.

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