Strengthening That Resilience Mindset – Doing Things that Scare You Is the Key
To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.
– Katherine Paterson
The practice of doing one thing a day that scares you creates resilience by wiring in new neural pathways that have learned to respond to fear by taking action. By framing whatever is scary as a challenge as well as, or even more than, a threat. That shift in perception – to see an opportunity to practice resilience – is a big shift in mindset and reliably strengthens a resilience mindset. And this new neural pathway underlying this reliable resilience mindset can be cultivated by the smallest of practices, day after day.
My own example, just two days ago…The electrical outlet in my bathroom went dead, working the day before, not working now. Pushing the reset button did nothing, and I could sense my own avoidance settling in, not fear exactly, just not dealing with it. Moving my toothbrush and hairdryer to another outlet, thinking I could call my contractor friend in a few days. Dancing around the issue but not resolving it. Then…
Wait a minute. I teach tools to strengthen resilience. What if I faced this directly? And I felt a surge of excitement; yes, this is a challenge. I’ll bet I can figure this out. [See post Good Stress v. Bad Stress]
That shift, from the shutdown-avoidance of an anxiety response to the excitement of a challenge response, opened up the thinking in my brain.
I remembered that I had learned how to check out the new circuit breaker box in the garage when my house was completely rewired this past winter. Into the garage, opening the box, reading all of the little indicator signs, hmmm the bathroom gfi was tripped. I flipped it back. Pushed the reset button. Voila! Current back on. A victory.
Most importantly, I felt excited. Not only had I fixed a problem, small as it was. I had called upon my resilience mindset – I’ll bet I can do this – to go ahead and try. That shift was the big excitement. I chose to shift the way I was dealing (not dealing) with the problem, to engage rather than avoid. That’s the big shift. Kelly McGonigal, in The Upside of Stress, calls it the excite-delight response. Catalyzing the release of dopamine (neurotransmitter of satisfaction and reward) to trigger motivation to act to counter-balance the cortisol the triggers the fear-threat response and avoidance.
I know about the dopamine driven excite-delight response as a counter to the cortisol driven threat response. I teach and write about that. [See Practice Making Choices post] I had just experienced it again fully for myself, reinforcing the learning that practicing doing one scary thing a day does foster a resilience mindset that we can call upon when things get really scary.
Exercise: Doing Things that Scare You
As always, when learning to change the brain’s learned patterns of response, even a pattern as hefty as an entire mindset, It’s wise and effective to practice little and often, small experiences repeated many times.
1. Identify any moment of the stress response revving up:
– you turn on the kitchen faucet and no water comes out.
– you’re already a tad late to your good friend’s wedding and the road is blocked by an accident.
– you discover the telephone bill you thought you had paid is hiding under a pile of papers on your desk.
2. Notice your own internal reaction – any activation of sensations (heart jumping, stomach churning, palms sweating), any signals to “do something!”
(It’s okay to experience these very normal signals; your nervous system is working to alert you and protect you from danger. It’s okay to label this reaction as anxiety because that is what we usually call this experience of activation.)
(If you notice you’re not especially reacting, you’re pretty calm, and steady, ready to deal, terrific. Take a moment to notice that and feel happy, grateful, proud that this is so. And then evoke another experience that could or did trigger a stress response, for practice.)
3. Notice your interpretation of your reaction – a negative “Oh no! Here I go again! Anxiety!!!” Or maybe you set the reaction aside so you can go ahead and try to solve the problem. Or maybe there’s a glimmer of “Hmmm. Okay. What can I do and what can I learn?”
4. For practice, experiment with choosing the mindset of potential possibility. “Well, that an interesting problem to solve! What can I learn here? What do I need to learn to solve this problem well? Who could teach me what I need to learn?”
5. Practice applying this mindset to the problem at hand and notice:
– any differences in how you view the problem
– any differences in how you view or label your internal response to the problem
– any differences in how you view yourself for choosing to experiment with shifting your mindset
6. And repeat, repeat, repeat, with as many stress responses to smaller stressors as you can identify, gradually applying this shift in mindset – from potential problem to potential possibility – to more challenging stressors, more challenging internal responses, noticing if you experience the big shift from anxiety to excitement; how exciting that would be!