There has been a lot of talk about 2020 and the type of year that it has been for most people in the world. There have been challenges that no one was expecting and levels of overwhelm that sometimes can’t be put into words. It has been a lot. Yet here you are. Showing up every day. Putting yourself out there in a world that is both hurtful and scary, a world that has the potential to beat you down when you are already feeling low. You are developing mental resilience. How do we keep going when it feels like the stress, the pressure, the hurt and the uncertainty just keep coming?
This is the power of mental resilience. Mental resilience is the strength that you possess in your internal self that keeps you going through all of the things. Our mental resilience is our ability to adapt to overwhelming changes, adverse life events and intense emotional circumstances so that we can continue to function.
It is the part of you that gets you on stage for a presentation when you feel as though you could faint or vomit, the part of you that shows up for work or at a friend’s house after the death of a loved one. It is the part of you that makes you eat when your eating disorder is telling you how wrong you are for eating. It is the part of you that tells your kids that everything is going to be okay. It is the part that puts on a smile when you are just as scared of what is happening in the world as they are. It is the part of you that keeps dreaming and hoping and trying even when your business fails or your idea falls through or your partner leaves. It is the part of you that believes in love and the goodness of human nature after being cheated on, abandoned or lied to. It is the part of you that gets yourself out of bed every morning despite how exhausted, scared, lost or low you might feel. It is the part of you that keeps you here, on this Earth, in this life.
When life gets overwhelming our mental resilience can be the thing that prevents us from losing our ability to function. It can keep us from going to the deep, dark places when it feels like things can’t get any worse. It can be protective from getting hurt or feeling the intensity of the emotions our current life circumstances are bringing up. We need our mental resilience to get through overwhelming times, but there is a point when mental resilience can actually override our emotions and physical feelings so much that we don’t realize the stress that we are under and the toll that it is having our bodies.
Beyond just 2020, in North America we live in a society that fosters and glorifies busyness. There is a baseline of anxiety and stress that we are all expected to adhere to in order to get everything that we need to get done. This state has become the norm so much so that many people do not even realize that they are under chronic stress.
I can’t even tell you how many patients come into my office and tell me they have no stress in their life. They don’t seem to count working 50 hour weeks, running around after kids, dealing with breakups or managing their lack of self-worth as stress. That is just “normal”. It isn’t stress. Whether or not it feels ”normal” most of us are living in a state of chronic stress. We don’t even notice this overwhelm because we have become so mentally resilient that we power through the way this stress feels in our bodies and minds. We don’t think too much about it because there isn’t anything we can do – we just need to keep going. What we don’t realize in doing this is that this chronic stress is impacting our overall health and wellbeing in ways that we can’t even see. Stress changes the way that our body functions. When we are in a state of chronic stress it can result in changes in our bodies’ baseline ability of functioning. It does this in such a subtle way that we often can’t even see the impacts on our physical health until we are too burnt out to function.
Let’s look at an example. You are the caregiver for a sick family member. Each day you are dealing with the emotional overwhelm of having someone that you love being sick. You are dealing with the uncertainty of what the future holds. Whether they are going to be there with you or not. What the next scan is going to show. Whether the treatment is going to work. What you are going to do if they aren’t there with you. Additionally, you are being strong for them. You are showing up each day with a positive attitude to try and give them strength to keep going and get better. You do this even though you are barely holding it together yourself, even though you are terrified of what could happen.
Although from the outside it looks like you are holding it together, although that mental resilience helps you to show up every single day amidst the overwhelming fear and uncertainty, your body is in a constant state of stress. Even though that mental resilience helps you to show up, it doesn’t stop the overwhelm that is happening underneath. It doesn’t stop the chronic stress and the state of fight or flight that you find yourself in. It doesn’t stop you from lying awake all night, it doesn’t stop your mind from spinning out of control when you are alone. It helps you show up, but it doesn’t take you out of that stressed state or stop the impact that stress is having on your body while you show up for someone else.
Our body was not made to differentiate between different stressors. It has one physiological stress response that is activated whether we are fighting off a bear, running from a volcano, doing a presentation, recovering from a breakup, or rushing to get to work on time. When we enter this stressed state for any reason our body enters this sympathetic, or “fight or flight” state. In this state our body literally prepares to defend itself or to run away. In doing this it changes our physical functioning and shuts off the organ system that are not necessary for either of these responses.
This includes our digestive system, certain parts of our nervous system, our urinary system and our immune system. This can make us more susceptible to getting colds and viruses as well as increase levels of anxiety and create digestive discomfort with symptoms including bloating, diarrhoea or constipation. At the same time our body increases the functioning of certain systems that are necessary for us to fight or flea. This includes increasing our blood sugar so we have more energy available, increasing blood pressure and salt retention as well as facilitating protein breakdown. In addition, this state changes the production of our hormones leading to changes in metabolism, sleep and reproductive health.
Normally this stress response is meant to help us survive the stressor and then when we leave that fight or flight state our bodies’ can go back to how they were functioning before. When we are under chronic stress our bodies don’t return to this normal state of functioning and instead stay in this stressed physical state indefinitely. This can cause long term changes to our health and can make us more susceptible to adverse health impacts including diabetes, high blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety and depression, chronic inflammation, autoimmune conditions and so much more. These changes are so subtle in day-to-day that we often don’t notice how our internal systems are changing until years down the road we are in a state of chronic bad health.
Mental resilience is not something to take for granted. It takes strength and energy and effort. It can be protective but at some point you need to check in with yourself and see how you are doing on the inside: what is the state that you are living in? What support do you need right now? This year is different – there is everyday stress, and then there is pandemic stress. This adds an extra silent layer to this overwhelm we are living in; it adds an extra layer to the amount of mental resilience that we need to put forth each and every day to cope. This is not to be taken lightly. This is not to go unnoticed. You are trying so hard. Whether you acknowledge it or not – you are strong, but you deserve support too. You deserve love and care and attention. You deserve a rest so that you can feel good in your body and mind – no matter what is going on in the outside world, no matter what you have to cope with on a daily basis.