Bouncing back from stress

It's impossible to sidestep all sources of stress. Would you really want to, anyway? Our lives are full of physi-cal and psychological challenges that add zest to life and sometimes deliver satisfying rewards. But while you can't erase all sources of stress, you can learn how to reduce stress and also build resilience—your ability to bounce back from stress.

William James, the great Harvard philosopher-psychologist of the late 19th century and a graduate of Harvard Medical School, himself a stressed-out melancholic, marveled at those he called "the healthy-minded" among us because they appeared to live hap-pier and healthier lives as a result of their optimism and positive perspective on life. Amid the run-of-the-mill volatility everyone must deal with, the healthy-minded seemed to turn challenges and potential failures into grist for opportunities and successes.

More recently, statistician and risk-management specialist Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term "antifragile." In his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, he defines fragility as the tendency to be damaged by volatility and uncertainty—the kinds of things that often create a chronic stress response. By contrast, the antifragile person realizes that stress is just the price we pay for being alive. Cultivating anti-fragility helps us use our strengths to overcome chal-lenges and become stronger in the process.

A prime example of antifragility is the Navy Seals. They are able to manage high degrees of stress and still function admirably. Faced with life-threatening situations, they can rapidly change the focus of their attention and address the issue at hand efficiently and flexibly. Brain scans show that Seals have altered acti-vation in a prefrontal brain region called the insula, which is involved in managing stress signals. As a group, Navy Seals exhibit at least seven characteris-tics of resilient people: calm, innovative, nondogmatic thinking; the ability to act decisively; tenacity; inter-personal connectedness; honesty; self-control; and optimism and a positive perspective on life.

For additional information on the dangers of stress and ways to relieve and manage it, buy Stress Management, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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