Here is the full text of clinical psychologist Raphael Rose’s talk titled “From Stress to Resilience” at TEDxManhattanBeach conference. In his research for NASA, Raphael finds that accepting and even welcoming stress helps us become more resilient, leading to a more meaningful, joyful, and socially connected life.
Stress. Mistakes. Failure.
Clearly I’m here to give the feel-good talk of the day. I’m actually here to talk about resilience.
As a researcher and a clinical psychologist at UCLA, I’ve been working with NASA on stress and resilience research for over 10 years. The very same NASA that has the expression: failure is not an option associated with it.
Well, I’m here to tell you today that not only is failure an option, it is required to promote resilience.
Resilience means you face life stressors and challenges and you bounce back and recover. And in doing so, you can enrich your life. So whether you work at NASA or your job as a high school student, being resilient means you face stressors, not eliminate them.
To be resilient means you learn from your mistakes, not avoid making them. And to be resilient means your rebound from failure. So any mistakes made during today’s presentation is all done in the name of resilience.
Do you know what astronauts report is among the most stressful things they deal with when they’re up in space? A power failure? A meteor strike? An explosion? An alien attack? No. And that’s how their kids and family are doing back on earth without them.
Interestingly when it comes to stress, we are a lot more like astronauts and other people who work in challenging environments than you might think.
Astronauts, while they’re up in space, can worry about their relationships, their spouses and how their kids are doing in school just like we do. Astronauts can have conflicts with coworkers, just like we do. They get stressed by health and finances.
In space, astronauts report that the demands of their job and at times the monotony of their job is among the most stressful things they have to deal with. Hmm, conflicts with peers, stressful and at other times boring work. That sounds a lot like high school to me.
A key aspect of chronic stress is that it can be like relationships, health problems or work stress, is that if you’re not coping well with it, it can be detrimental to your health and well-being.
Chronic stress is associated with lowered immune functioning. Chronic stress is associated with memory and cardiac problems. Good thing I remember that.
The good news is that people manage stress better than others and they are more resilient and we can look to them to see what they’re doing well.
SO HOW DO YOU BECOME MORE RESILIENT?
Well, still working on that answer. But first let’s talk about what does not seem to promote resilience.
Stress can really hijack your brain. It can really grab your attention. You ever try to avoid thinking about the thing you’re stressed about, try to distract yourself, even suppress the thought or image of whatever is stressing you?
Well, to highlight that idea, I like all of you please now to think about anything you want. Think about anything you want but not a white bear. Think about anything you want but not a white bear. Go ahead.
How’d that go? Did trying to suppress the image work? Generally speaking, suppression is not an effective strategy. And while a white bear might not be a stressful image for you, it highlights the point that when we try not to think about something, it brings our attention more to that very thing.
So if suppression isn’t a good strategy, how can we become more resilient?
Well, here’s what we know about resilient individuals associated with certain personality traits and factors. Resilient individuals are more likely to experience positive effects, so things like happiness, joy, pleasure, contentment. They’re also less likely to experience negative emotions like anxiety, fear, sadness, moodiness, human jealousy.
Resilient individuals are open to new experiences, outgoing. They embrace challenges. Resilient individuals are so socially connected and integrated.
So to be more resilient, just be happy and have lots of friends. It’s not that simple and like most things in life, the answer is more nuanced than that.
So how do we become more resilient? The science on training resilience is still relatively young. But if we look to what we know makes up resilient individuals, it can point us in some important directions.
Let’s take the example of a high school senior. She signs up for a challenging math class. She joins the debate team. She volunteers at a homeless shelter in her community. And she asks someone out to the prom. Any and all of those experiences can lead to growth and more meaningful experiences. It can lead to positive emotions.
And it can also lead to new social connections and relationships. She can improve her math skills. She can win the debate competition. She can feel pride at giving back to her community and she can build new relationships.
And each and every one of those things can result in mistakes, and disappointments, failure, even rejection. She fails the math class, loses the debate competition, is turned down by her potential prom date, feels overwhelmed at the state of things in her community.
However even those undesirable outcomes provide her the opportunity to learn how to rebound and recover better from stress and therefore promote resilience.
Well, I didn’t think about this while I was growing up, my first model for resilience was my father.
My father was a Holocaust survivor and he spent four years of his life in concentration camps, doing slave labor. And he was the only member of his family to survive.
My father sort of demonstrated the ultimate ability to rebound and recover from extraordinary circumstances. He found passion in starting a family after he immigrated to the US. He found dedication and commitment to his career as an engineer.
He never missed an opportunity to be out on the tennis courts with buddies. And his off-color humor was his example of positivity. So we see an example of the high school senior and we see an example of my father how facing life’s challenges and pursuing meaning can help promote resilience.
For most of us modifying what we do to pursue more meaning means changing something about our behavior. It also means finding the time to do it.
Now I’m in the behavior change business essentially and it’s not the easiest thing to do.
So here are two things to keep in mind when it comes to behavior change. Slow and gradual behavior change is more likely to succeed and last. Often when we try to undertake behavior change it seems too overwhelming a task and we shortly fail or give up.
How many of you think flossing after each meal is good? How many of you make the time to floss after each meal? Some hands dropped.
So for those of you that want to improve your flossing behavior and to highlight this idea of slow and gradual change, I want all of you to floss one tooth tonight. Anyone can floss a tooth.
Now I’m not saying the idea here is to have the healthiest molar in the history of dentistry but rather that it highlights the idea that when we commit to a manageable behavior change it makes it more likely that we’ll do it and then once we start it’s more likely we can go out to the next tooth and the next tooth, but start with just one.
Second thing that’s important when it comes to behavior change is compassion. Be compassionate to yourself. Don’t be self-critical. Behavior change is more likely to be effective if you take that stance.
How many of you think daily exercise is important? How many of you exercise daily? All right. Well, exercise is actually a great way to promote resilience. It helps you manage emotions, helps improve cognition, helps your body heal and recover.
But usually taking — undertaking an exercise regimen can seem daunting and many people either don’t start or give up shortly after starting. Think gradual change and try the five-minute rule. Do any kind of exercise for five minutes, so it won’t have you running a marathon tomorrow but it can have you walking around the block.
And this is the crucial part. When you change your behavior and when you slip up in changing your behavior and you missed that walk, be compassionate, go easy on yourself. If you’re self-critical you’re more likely to feel down and as a result you’re going to be less likely to think you can actually change your behavior.
Try a stance of being compassionate, so when you miss that walk or that exercise, excuse yourself and see that you might be more likely to rebound the next day and go on that walk. And if you are doing that you are rebounding and recovering and promoting resilience.
Do you know what astronauts say is among the most helpful things they do for managing stress when they’re up in space? They look at Earth and they take photos of it.
Now is it that looking at our planet actually reduces stress? Well it’s certainly relaxing but more importantly it allows them to engage in something meaningful. And when they’re engaged in something meaningful that can help them move beyond a particularly challenging day.
Engaging in something meaningful can help them move beyond a conflict for the time being that they might have had with a co-worker.
It’s a subtle but important distinction but doing something for the joy it brings as opposed to it lowering your stress can allow your attention to focus more on the meaningful pursuit. And the more your attention is on a meaningful pursuit the less it is focused on stressors like a white bear.
So I encourage all of you to find your paths to resilience through meaningful pursuits. It can be meditation, photography, learning a new language, engaging your community more.
And as you go on your own missions to Mars, whether that’s navigating the 405 and traffic, doing your homework, or trying to improve your health or your relationships, my message to you is to welcome stress.
Take on the challenges in your life. Learn from your mistakes. Be compassionate to yourself and to others. Rebound from failure and enjoy your accomplishments.
Resources for Further Reading:
- Revealing The Lost Codex of Archimedes: William Noel (Transcript)
- The Power of Civil Momentum: Annamalai Kuppusamy (Transcript)
- What Does It Mean To Be Yourself? – Carly Sotas (Transcript)
- Help For Kids The Education System Ignores: Victor Rios (Transcript)
- How Acts of Kindness Sparked a Global Movement: Asha Curran (Transcript)