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Seeking out inner resources

Resilience decides whether we can deal constructively with pressure or whether we feel trapped in a downward spiral.
Photo: A. Karnholz/Fotolia

Professor Bodenmann, is it true to say that we have more stress than earlier generations? And do we end up stressing ourselves?

Guy Bodenmann:

I suppose it is fair to say that both are true. On the one hand, there is in fact more day-to-day stress. The “daily hassles” have increased, along with the pressure to perform and frantic pace of modern life. On the other hand, modern stress research believes that a person feels subjectively whether a demand is stressful or not. The question is how we view these demands ourselves and how we deal with them.

You developed the idea of a “stress house” – complete with different floors, rooms and piping systems – to illustrate our personal well-being and how we deal with stress. What does it look like inside this house?

Guy Bodenmann:

This image is an attempt to break down the complex interplay of various factors when we experience stress. The foundation of the house is our sense of self-worth. On various floors, there are then further aspects such as esteem, recognition and the ability to perform, to love and to enjoy things. But a role is also played by our own values and essential questions that influence how we deal with stressful situations.

Why is it important to make a distinction between these different areas?

Guy Bodenmann:

Specialist literature on this topic usually involves tips about how to reduce individual stress. Generally speaking, these tips encourage people to learn relaxation techniques, to eat healthy foods and to play sport and take exercise. These aspects, all of which are important, are what I see as the house’s “piping system”. But when the foundation – i.e. our sense of self-worth – is not stable enough, then the whole construction of the house is fragile and reinforcing the piping system can only do a limited amount of good. It is interesting to visit this house in our minds and to ask ourselves a few questions: Which room do I find the most appealing? Where do I see a need to take action; where is there none? Those that actually do have to go all the way down to the foundation also have the most work.

For some years, the term “resilience” has been used to describe some people’s ability to take all of life’s adversities, big and small, in their stride. They are more robust, more motivated and more optimistic than others and, in turn, less stressed out as well. Why is this?

Guy Bodenmann:

As with the foundation of the stress house, the central factor for developing resilience is healthy self-esteem. It all depends on the attitude that you take towards challenges: do we believe that we are a match for these challenges, that we can achieve something? How about our social skills? These resilience factors come into being as part of human development, meaning that they are shaped by personal experience. In all people’s lives, there are phases in which they are pushed to their limits. There is then a series of factors that influence how well each person can deal with the situation. These can be external – such as the social network or neighbourhood – but most of all they are internal factors such as the individual resources mentioned above.

Guy Bodenmann is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Zurich University and has been conducting research into stress for many years. He has developed scientifically based programmes for managing stress which are geared towards helping both individuals and couples to find constructive ways to deal with stress.
Photo: Axel Springer Schweiz AG

Modern research is well aware of the great significance of early childhood in the development of healthy self-esteem. Which aspects are particularly important?

Guy Bodenmann:

Childhood does indeed play a central role. If a child experiences that it is an important person for its parents, that they are reliable and available and give the love, affection and warmth that the child needs – but also a stable structure and necessary boundaries – this creates a very important basis for resilience.

In many articles on the subject of stress, the term “self-efficacy” is also used as a positive factor for dealing with stressful situations. What is meant by this?

Guy Bodenmann:

Let us assume that there is a specific event that lies ahead of us in our lives. The question now is: what expectation I have in this regard? This can vary widely: I think that I can’t change anything, that everything is a question of fate – that is what is known as external locus of control. Internal locus of control, on the other hand, means that I firmly believe that I can influence the event that lies ahead of me. For instance in an exam situation, if I am sure that I can influence the result by studying and preparing for the examination, then there is also a motivation to do so. Without this conviction, people feel like the plaything of external powers and therefore get stressed far more quickly. This is because they feel that they are not a match for the task at hand.

Why can loci of control vary so much?

Guy Bodenmann:

Here, too, early childhood experience plays a role. Can the child exert control, can it influence its environment – for example by crying in order to be given food or a fresh nappy? Or, later on in school, how do parents react to the child’s school reports? Do they join them in taking pleasure in good results or do they give them the impression that these have nothing to do with their performance, or even pick holes in it? Such comments reinforce a negative self-image: the child feels that it is never good enough and can never meet other people’s wishes.

What can adults do to improve their own ability to cope with stress?

Guy Bodenmann:

I find that the ability to enjoy things is a particularly crucial aspect. I subscribe to the outlook of Greek philosopher Epicurus, who made the case for leading a pleasurable life over 2,000 years ago. It should be noted that he was by no means interested in excess, but rather in satisfying elementary needs and deriving pleasure from them. Being content with little and taking pleasure in small things – this helps us in our journey. On the other hand, when you can only find pleasure in external, material things such as a new car, the pleasure can be very short-lived – for instance until your neighbour shows up with an even better model. The question is therefore: can I enjoy the moment? Can I seize these small moments in everyday life that perk me up and help to counterbalance how I experience stress? People who are able to do that can take spiritual nourishment from it and are more resistant to stress.

But sometimes, it is even the case that relaxing or a desire to strike a healthy balance ends up actually causing stress – this happens when you aim to optimise things here as well.

Guy Bodenmann:

A good example of this is jogging. In the stress house model, this activity corresponds to the piping system: taking exercise, usually seen as a positive thing to do. Unfortunately, many people also see jogging from a performance perspective. This means that they hurtle through the woods, oblivious to the beautiful colours, the birdsong, the fresh air. On the other hand, if you manage to take these positive impressions on board and to enjoy them without fixating on your pulse rate monitor and the need to match your personal best, then jogging has a double benefit – not only does it do your body good, but also your mind.




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This article was first published in viaWALA December 2014.