The Regulation Leg of the Seat of Resilience
Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair
The three legs of the Seat of Resilience are 1. Regulation, 2. Connection and 3. Purpose. Learning to achieve individual resiliency through regulation is more complex than it sounds, but also pretty simple. The ability to regulate one’s response to stress is one of life’s most important, yet underutilized, skills. When adversity strikes, if we can control our emotional, mental, and physical response and learn to use the energy as fuel for growth rather than let it corrode our minds and bodies, we’ve transcended every goal of self-care.
When we hear “self-care,” we often think pedicure, massage, and maybe a bathtub. Let’s back up and take a broader look at this concept. Self-care is so much more than taking an occasional hour to indulge. In addition to our notions of traditional self-care, which remain important, there are self-care practices that nourish all domains of our wellbeing, especially emotional health through neuroplasticity.
Regular — read daily — practice of self-care, also called preventative self-care, builds and strengthens the resiliency muscles in preparation for the next gawd-awful event coming down the pike. Tools like perspective, distance, and boundaries can protect the self while still engaging in the tough work and making a difference. For those who need a starting line on the road to self-care, here are some solid ideas.
Schedule and prioritize self-care, especially exercise, outside activities and social connection. Self-care alone probably isn’t enough, but it remains a crucial part of sustainability and, unless you aggressively schedule time for it, it tends to get pushed.
Try meditation. Take time every day to quiet your mind. We know that multi-tasking isn’t all it was cracked up to be and some say that when you have too many tabs open at once, your whole operating system slows. If mediation isn’t your gig, go for a walk, check-in with a friend, or single task a cup of tea.
Practice gratitude. Take the gratitude challenge. Susan Broderick, Program Director with the National District Attorneys Association, who struggled with breast cancer, the death of loved ones and a recently stolen car said it best.
“An attitude of gratitude, a slogan I initially dismissed, has become one of the most important themes of my life. Life is going to be constantly presenting us with challenges, but within each experience is an opportunity to find the good. Some of the worst experiences of my life — 9/11 and my father’s death — had no obvious silver linings at first. However, even in those instances, I was able to tap into an inner source of strength that I did not even know existed. And that was the gift.
Given our current challenges, it is easy to point out the negative and we are surrounded by hopelessness. Pointing out the problem may be a necessary first step but focusing on solutions is how we build resolve and resiliency. While looking for silver linings may sound like a line out of a fairytale, I have found it to be one of the greatest tools I have in responding to the current demands of an unprecedented time.”
Manage your anxiety. Practice noticing where you harbor stress in your body and teach your brain to forge new neuropaths. Stay in your window of tolerance between hyper-arousal and numbness. We’ll dig a little deeper into neuroplasticity later.
Learn and practice resiliency skills. Build your own, personalized resiliency toolbox. It is important to understand that resilience requires 1) awareness — paying attention to how our bodies and brains respond to stress, and 2) connection — through resonant listening and peer support.
Offer support to colleagues through resonant listening and peer support. If your office doesn’t have a formal peer support program, you can start one with little or no expense. Importantly, colleagues can support each other without a formal peer support program through empathetic listening, where they are taught to notice and respond when co-workers need support.
Recharge tools (traditional self-care) are still important. Yes, pedicures! But also, hobbies, exercise, meditation, gratitude practice, vacation, breathing, music, walking, cards, videogames, whatever takes the focus off work stress and gives your brain a “rest.”
Preventative steps toward better regulation
Preventative self-care is kind of like horse wrangling. Wait. What? Let me explain.
Building resilience, like training horses to ride, is all about the preparation and requires an investment of time and intention. Near my home wanders a small herd of wild horses, with a stallion, a handful of mares and several colts. They unabashedly wander through our streets, leaving piles of gifts on walkways and holes in our lawns, but are otherwise unobtrusive, beautiful, and benevolent. I’ve been riding horses since I was a child, but I wouldn’t dream of hopping on one these mustangs and going for a ride, even if I was out of gas and really needed to get to town. And you wouldn’t either. It doesn’t require conjuring our survival instincts to appreciate the risk of death or serious bodily injury.
Proper horse training can take years. In addition to the actual schooling, you have to feed them — a lot — of hay that you reserved at least a year in advance and then hauled home, two tons at a time, and put up in a weather-protected enclosure. You also have to groom them, worm them, de-tick them, have their teeth floated, exercise them regularly, call the vet when they are sick, and get to know their unique fears and preferences. You get it. It is a huge, time-consuming, and expensive commitment that, at least for horse people, is well worth it. But here (finally!) is my point:
If you wait until crisis hits — and it will — frantically scanning the net for “Immediate Crisis Relief” isn’t going to help. Your mustang of resiliency must have already been trained and ready to ride. Waiting in the barn. There are no shortcuts.
Like wrangling, investing in preventative self-care is a commitment, but worth it when the unexpected knocks you over. Your ability to get back up, and quickly, depends on your training. Like most areas of wellbeing and like the program involving Luke, Yoda and Obi-wan’s ghost, the training to strengthen your resiliency muscle is unique to you, but it can include mediation, building a solid peer foundation, and mastering neuroplasticity skills. Or sword fighting in a swamp on Dagobah. Loads of research tell us the value of a daily mental-training practice.
Additionally, practicing the arts of perspective, distancing and boundaries can also equip us with the skills needed when adversity strikes.
Perspective is the ability to look at a challenge through another lens or from another angle. Distancing is the intentional removal of your mental space from conflict and can be — but doesn’t have to be — physical distancing. We can create a buffer zone by walking away, by shifting our focus (hello happy place!) or by postponing resumption of the process until heads are clearer. Transition rituals help our brains separate traumatic material from the rest-and-relax stuff. Finally, establishing boundaries when engaging in activating material or with people in crisis can preserve our own resources while still allowing us to engage with them.
Kirsten Pabst chairs NDAA’s Well-being Task Force and serves as the County Attorney for Missoula County, Montana.