Resources for Recovering Resilience: Coping with Stress through “Flow”

I was reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s best-selling and eternally relevant book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience on my way home from assisting in a training at Kripalu in Stockbridge, MA last weekend. Having already extended my stay in Albany, NY one night because of too many thunderstorms in Chicago, I noticed my response of distress when the crew on the first flight the following morning announced that weather conditions in Albany would delay our departure by 30 minutes, cutting my turn around time to change planes in Chicago to a risky 15 minutes. I glanced down at what I was reading. I had just started the section on coping with stress:

“In trying to sort out what accounts for a person’s ability to cope with stress, it is useful to distinguish three different kinds of resources. The first is the external support available, and especially the network of social supports. The second bulwark against stress includes a person’s psychological resources, such as intelligence, education, and relevant personality factors. The third type of resource refers to the coping strategies that a person uses to confront the stress. Of these three factors, the third one is both the most important factor in determining what effects stress will have and the most flexible resource, the one most under our personal control.”

Well, there you have it. (How does the universe create these synchronicities?) I teach about resources for coping with stress and recovering resilience because I need to practice being resilient every other minute of my day, most days.

Csikszentmihalyi suggests three elements of resilience or, as he phrases it, transformational coping – the ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it.

  1. Unselfconscious self-assurance. This attitude occurs when a person no longer sees himself in opposition to the environment, as an individual who insists his goals, his intentions take precedence over everything else. Instead, he feels a part of whatever goes on around him and tries to do his best within the system in which he must operate. Paradoxically, this sense of humility – the recognition that one’s goals may have to be subordinated to a greater entity, and that to succeed one may have to play by a different set of rules from what one would prefer – is a hallmark of strong people.”

    [Yes, certainly facing the realities of the bigger picture, knowing that hundreds of other folks were dealing with the same disruptions and uncertainties of travel that I was helped me not fight the situation but receive the help and kindness that airline and hotel staff steadily offered.]

  2. Focusing attention on the world. It is difficult to notice the environment as long as attention is mainly focused inward, as long as most of one’s psychic energy is absorbed by the concerns and desires of the ego. People who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves. They are not expending all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings. The focus is still set by the person’s goal, but it is open enough to notice and adapt to external events, even if they are not directly relevant to what he wants to accomplish. An open stance makes it possible for a person to be objective, to be aware of alternative possibilities. If one continues to stay in touch with what is going on, new possibilities are likely to emerge, which in turn might suggest new responses, and one is less likely to be entirely cut off from the stream of life.”

    [A small triumph, perhaps, but I did notice the Mediation Room provided in the Albany airport and if much of my time was to be spent waiting for decisions to be made by people other than me, I could relish the peaceful environment to read my book in.]

  3. The discovery of new solutions. Almost every situation we encounter in life presents possibilities for growth. But these transformations require that a person be prepared to perceive unexpected opportunities. Most of us become so rigidly fixed in the ruts carved out by genetic programming and social conditioning that we ignore the options of choosing any other course of action. Living exclusively by genetic and social instructions is fine as long as everything goes well. But the moment biological or social goals are frustrated – which in the long run is inevitable – a person must formulate new goals, and create a new flow activity for himself, or else he will waste his energies in inner turmoil.”

    [Deciding to turn my experience into an e-posting did give me a focus for my energy other than irritation or discomfort and rather quickly helped me recover that sense of flow that makes life so enjoyable and worthwhile.]

By the time I had read through these three elements, my plane was released for take-off. We landed in Chicago ten minutes early so I could “flow” with the 25 minutes I had to change planes, and with the deepening wisdom that resilience is all about practice, paying attention, engaging reality, exploring alternatives, and trusting one’s growing capacities to do so.

The “exercise” for recovering resilience this week is to read or review enough of Csikzentmihalyi’s research on Flow to be able to identify ways to bring more flow regularly into your day, and into your life. And share what you’re learning with me and others on this path of recovering resilience by transforming stress into growth and well-being.