Stress resiliency?
May 5, 2022 10:33 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to read about what makes some people "cool" -- that is, resilient to stress. You couldn't pay me enough to be a politician due to the associated stresses but some people obviously excel at it. What makes them different?

We just made a fairly substantial financial decision and I'm in an anxiety spiral. We did our due diligence (and sought external opinion) but I'm still second guessing it. In a grand scheme of things I (intellectually) realize that this is small potatoes. Makes me wonder how leaders make decisions that really have long term implications (new project, business acquisition, starting a war).

I'd like to build up my tolerance to life events like this since they inevitable. I exercise, meditate and am generally healthy, but every once in a while I feel like relatively minor things knock me on my ass.
posted by aeighty to Human Relations (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think there's a magic solution here and the standard advice is probably the best: The things that have made me more resilient are regular intensive exercise, time in nature, reducing stressful inputs, low-key fun times with friends and family and pets, making art, listening to music, making and eating good food.

In terms of being in charge of big hard things, I think the way to do this is to gently stretch oneself over time; to get used to doing new things with greater levels of impact, but within limited contexts that don't overwhelm. Like for me I've taken on greater responsibilities at work or in my union or in the activist work I do, or even with my own life decisions like getting married or buying a house, but taking those on in slowly increasing levels over time. Stress is good and helps us grow, but if delivered unremittingly then we get crushed and develop sometimes harmful coping mechanisms. So I think metering out your increasing responablity over time with breaks in between is really a good practice.

Some of those public figures who seem to thrive on stress are actually dying inside or acting out with unmanaged substance use disorders, compulsive sexual behaviors, or just taking out their stress in abusive ways on the underlings around them. They just have a public face that obscures their poor stress management.
posted by latkes at 10:40 AM on May 5, 2022 [6 favorites]

I think some people are just built to be the explorers and jaguar wrestlers of the primordial human pack. I don't have world-leader type pressures but I'm very resilient to adrenaline pressure from problems happening at speed / having to think fast / being watched. I worked in live television for years and found it pleasantly exhilarating. My brain is just built for it. I get bored super easily, I have an interest-based nervous system, and I love the neurochemical rush of adrenaline and excitement when the pressure is on. (I also get tired and wrung out after about a week of it, see my most recent Ask, but I'd still say my tolerance for it is very high in general). To get better at it, I think you just have to do it more - but it's really not for everyone.

And even among the people who DO like a fast-paced, risky, exciting lifestyle - a lot of them aren't that resilient on their own: they also "really like" stimulant drugs, drink entire pots of coffee, have temper tantrums, and shoplift or have high-intensity sexual habits or other risky hobbies (motorcycles, etc) on their days off.

Note that in leadership contexts, you'd usually have a ton of advisors helping you feel confident that you're on the right track. In a way, I think a major business decision would be LESS stressful than a big personal finance decision, because big business leaders can hire experts to double-check and project outcomes, and decisions are usually made with numerous stakeholders at the table. Even for things like making a business announcement - there's an entire strategy team ghostwriting, calculating, talking through, and troubleshooting every aspect of the project - the leader is more likely to be the figurehead of the team, certainly not the sole decision maker, and not the only person suffering or scrambling to pivot if the decision doesn't work out.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:42 AM on May 5, 2022 [15 favorites]

In my opinion, experience, and observation, the pathways may differ, and some pathways more robust than others, but the essential trait/habitude is just letting it go once a decision is done. Let go and let God, basically.

Nothing in that means it's always ethically the correct mindset to adopt but it's fundamentally the only thing that allows a person in a leadership role of any kind to just keep going to the next thing that needs deciding. But just in terms of dealing with the stress of the projected outcomes and impact of the last decision one makes.

ETA (clicked too soon): personally i consider that whole mindset to also include the flexibility of adapting to the consequences of the last decision. No use crying over it once it's done, what can i/you do now?
posted by cendawanita at 10:44 AM on May 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

Something that I've found useful is the concept that dealing with the stress and dealing with the stressor are two separate processes. In your case it sounds like you've dealt with the stressor (you are rationally comfortable with the big decision and you know that you've done your best) but you are still feeling the stress. The way you deal with the stress might be something COMPLETELY irrelevant to the actual stressor - going for a hard run, spending time in nature, hugs, meditation.

I think there are also plenty of people who are very good and natural at dealing with the stress even when they haven't completely solved the stressor, and that's one of the things that helps people be cool under pressure - they are either naturally disinclined to anxiety or they've trained themselves to deal with it very quickly, regardless of how far they have left to go in removing the actual source of stress. This is the "let go and let God" attitude/process that cendawanita mentions above.
posted by mskyle at 11:06 AM on May 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

And with that said, my personal pathway to resilience:

- understand my personal limitations. Work out which are non-negotiable (my limited reserves of executive function) and which are negotiable (lack of time caused by having intense interest in a lot of things and basic helpfulness and the ego/vanity embedded in that).

- find adaptive measures for non-negotiable stuff including compromises and just plain red lines (e.g. i absolutely cannot tolerate car leases/loans it turns out. I would rather pay for taxis/rides and public transportation in my city; or consistently finding ways to delegate the work i have to do, via apps or services e.g. meal plans etc) and importantly, don't beat myself up over these choices especially if they're unusual ones.

- talk therapy or dialectical method works very well for me, and i use it to work through pros and cons of unavoidable stressors. Long term projection exercises are also useful here, and may be for you as well, as it sounds like you lack confidence in the viability of the outcomes of your decision. But surely you've planned it thoroughly enough, but still you're anxious. It's worth examining why that is.

- having solid friends/support system and hobbies etc help of course but i don't personally find it as useful as a means to relieve this kind of stress because it just leads to avoidant behaviour. This is also very much a social culture and personal habit-derived reasoning. I don't really need to be cheered up so much as I need to be okay with the impact of my decision. But this factor IS important as a dimension that would be effected or not by my decision so if having a strong network will be an important backup cushion either economically or psychologically (as a result of a big financial decision), then definitely cultivate that.

- if any part of your decision-making tree required the input, feedback, and analysis of other people, be confident enough with the strength of their contribution or don't incorporate them at all. Trust them or work to trust them or establish why you can't trust them and then act accordingly. This is related to the first point which boils down to you can't control everything and everyone nor can you do everything. Grappling with that fact comes easily to some more than others.

- (this point above can even include having a person who takes on the responsibility to be the final word that this decision you made is fine, and you take them at their word and you mentally put it to bed)

- as much as possible, remove the mental habit to time travel and roleplay what ifs. That's what's tripping you up, since it's leading you to unproductive anxiety. Such mental journeys are only useful if you're able to model potential solutions for future decisions or outcomes from this current decision.

- as much as possible, cultivate answering the question, what can I do now, rather than, what did I do wrong? E.g. I'm confident enough in remortgaging the house but who knows if the high ground we're located in could still be flood-prone in 20 years. Well, what can I do now? Probably figure out if that's even a reasonable assumption. But not fretting if I'm putting down money into a financial vortex.
posted by cendawanita at 11:12 AM on May 5, 2022 [6 favorites]

I actually don’t think most of those people are “cool” as in zen and non-reactive. That describes a rare sort of person, in my limited experience. I think it’s more likely they’re stimulated by the stress (adrenaline junkies, if you will.)

I think this because I’m that way myself in limited doses. I do appear cool and calm, but that’s a deliberate face I put on as part of selling myself as a leader and selling the decision as the appropriate decision.

Don’t underestimate the acting component of leadership. The people who can’t act confident and unfazed typically won’t be a good fit for these extremely high-stakes, high-visibility leadership roles though they may be just as—often more—competent.

The people I know who are truly calm and non-reactive either had much more stable and supportive upbringings than most, or worked very hard to get there through some kind of spiritual or therapeutic practice.
posted by kapers at 11:12 AM on May 5, 2022 [8 favorites]

Watching my young children:

Child A: experienced slight pain, rolls around and cries, and Never Wants To Be Near That Thing Again So Help Me God

Child B: hurts themself, gets angry, get up, Faces That Thing Again By God You Will Not Have Power Over Me (this one also runs right into threatening situations; betting they will sky dive at some point)

I truly chalk it up to a genetic / nervous system response / set point thing. If you’re already tense a little will do you over; if you’re already slack you need a lot of stimulation before it’ll register.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:28 AM on May 5, 2022 [5 favorites]

I have anxiety spirals on the regular. In addition to points made above, one thing that makes me more stress-resilient is... exposure and acclimation to stressful situations. For example, about 4 months before the pandemic started my partner was in an accident and spent several days in the ICU in critical condition. It was a terrifying time with ultimately the best possible outcome. When we went into lockdown we had already experienced a recent life-or-death scenario, and the pandemic seemed almost "NBD, we got this!" by comparison.

What you're experiencing now may prepare you for your next stressful situation in surprising ways. You mentioned due diligence, so that means you've done your homework and have that knowledge and experience to carry you forward.

You also have a gauge of how stressful a new situation might be, as in, "On a scale of 1 to Big Financial Decision, how stressful is this new thing that's happening?"
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 11:35 AM on May 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

In terms of politicians and CEOs, I feel like part of it often has to do with arrogance- they can easily convince themselves they've done the right thing because they think they're special. In terms of what might help, have you read about the idea of completing the stress cycle?
posted by pinochiette at 12:21 PM on May 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

Yeah I would check your assumption that politicians in particular are actually really "cool," as in, healthily absorbing stressful situations. Take a look at some pictures of U.S. presidents at the starts and ends of their presidencies. That shit ages you. And you only see those folks in the roles where they are deliberately presenting themselves to the public--unless you're the intern Amy Klobuchar threw a stapler at, for just one recent example. You aren't in their heads; you don't know how their thoughts look or how their emotions feel.

Some people are probably more naturally cool under pressure, but a lot of folks with high-stress, high-stakes jobs actually do end up becoming real assholes. You just can't tell it by looking at them, or spending a few minutes in their presence.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:23 PM on May 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

People's motivations will vary and their motivations drive often decisions. An ambitious, attention-seeking politician is deceived into thinking he is doing the appropriate thing because their ego-need to be popular or in the limelight is their overwhelming motivation. They might be more anxious if they didn't take risks, or work hard to prove their worth through success. Some people think they are truly right, and morally superior, and this belief guides their decisions. They don't second-guess because they believe it's the "right" thing to do. Some people have more fear and anxiety, and more skepticism or worry. It's all in how your brain is made at the early stages of life.
posted by loveandhappiness at 12:32 PM on May 5, 2022

You might be interested in Amanda Ripley's The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why (sudden stresses rather than decision-making stress, but it addresses choice under pressure).
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:25 PM on May 5, 2022

I've known many politicians (and worked for some), and as Blast Hardcheese says, it's sadly not true that they don't stress about the decisions that come with power. Working in politics is incredibly bad for mental health, and it notoriously destroys relationships, friendships, and marriages.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:33 PM on May 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

You can only experience things as subjectively stressful.
So one person's 'no big deal' might be the most stressful thing another person has had to deal with.

Your brain will try and compare it with other people you know, but ultimately, it's an entirely subjective scale.

So I think bad things can happen when your most stressful experience, rather than being a one off, even if it's objectively pretty stressful, like, "Oh no, I'm in the jungle and just saw a lion", is instead maybe, something less objectively stressful, but happens all the time, like say - a grumpy boss.

Because if the top of your internal scale is "grumpy boss", you might start reacting to it *like you're being stalked by a lion*. And unfortunately, it's happening *all the time*.

Notice how people who are good at stressful situations often have adrenaline-freak hobbies?
I don't think that's a coincidence.
On some level, you're able to go, "OK, boss is grumpy, but... I jumped out of a *plane*, thousands of feet up!". In comparison, it doesn't seem like as big a deal?

So, give yourself a different 'maximum stress' set point.

People with anxiety often start to limit stressful situations more and more.
Instead, are there any activities you could do which are fundamentally safe, and won't have any long term consequences, but will give a short term adrenaline rush/thrill/scare?
There's jumping out of a plane, but there's also much cheaper things, like jumping off an Olympic dive board at a pool. There's scary movies or haunted house attractions. There's fast amusement park rides. There's joining toast masters and giving speeches to a roomful of people when it *won't* actually affect your job if you screw up etc.
There's helping other people deal with bigger crises (a lot of volunteering opportunities here).
I think practicing being in stressful situations while being *calm* is even better than something that makes you shriek, so a lot of horror stuff isn't maybe the best, because you're wanting to practice the skill or attitude you'd like to have. But still, you get the idea.

I'm great in a crisis, but on the other hand, I've dealt with a lot more than other people, so I'm comparing to points where I was really worried about the consequences, and dealing with someone having a say, drug induced psychotic break doesn't seem as big a deal.

Also, I used lions as a pretend example, I should have used a real example, like when two 3m bull sharks swam up to me while I was learning to scuba dive for the first time. 😂 🦈
The good side being, each situation like that reassures me that I can deal with stressful situations calmly, say when travelling, and makes it easier to deal with the next situation.
posted by Elysum at 11:50 PM on May 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

Slay bigger dragons -- Elysum has it. It's okay to stretch yourself to deal with bad outcomes. You might only feel safe stretching yourself a little at a time, and only then with some good plans for scenarios where things don't go well. Look up 'scenario planning' as a practice within disaster recovery -- we build plans for a number of different disaster outcomes and switch between them based on how bad things are going. Of course it's terrifying, but we also practise running through the plans so that the plans are familiar even when the moment of crisis threatens to overwhelm us -- we can rely confidently on the scenarios we've planned for.

cendawanita: as much as possible, remove the mental habit to time travel and roleplay what ifs. That's what's tripping you up, since it's leading you to unproductive anxiety. Such mental journeys are only useful if you're able to model potential solutions for future decisions or outcomes from this current decision.

If you're going to ruminate and over-think things, use the time to build and run through plans for those situations. The fizzing anticipation can be labelled as excitement rather than negative fear when you've mapped out the circumstances you're feeling anxious about. I believe in you, I think you've got this.
posted by k3ninho at 1:51 AM on May 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Makes me wonder how leaders make decisions that really have long term implications (new project, business acquisition, starting a war).

Cynically, there are a lot of political and business leaders who are personally insulated from the effects of their decisions, and are also surrounded by enablers who work hard to reassure them that they're doing well and that they'll be supported whatever happens. Think about someone like George Bush, who kind of wrecked the world in a few ways, and who then and now was received pretty much anywhere he wanted to go, has remained rich, has kept his friends, has never stood trial for war crimes, has never had to deal with the fallout of the things and the many, many, many lives he broke, and has never not been surrounded by people who insist he did The Right Patriotic Real American Values Things. Or think of all the golden-parachute CEOs who might lose their jobs but still be surrounded by wealth and enablers and enabling narratives and country club buddies. And there's always PR management and spin doctoring if the worst happens and you get canceled - wait a year or three and chances are everyone will have forgotten your many sins and you can launch some new venture and have something to talk about at the club.

I think this is pretty bad, but it's also true that feeling insulated from disaster can help your own mental health. I have a ton of stress and anxiety and I've been working on trying to remember a sense of perspective. Because in most cases I'm not actually at risk of death or real disaster. Even if the worst case happens, I'll be, compared to a few billion people on the planet, pretty okay. I can afford to lose much more than I think and still be all right, even if it doesn't seem that way; it's not the end of the world if I don't manage to do everything Right. Sometimes that helps.
posted by trig at 2:58 AM on May 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

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