You know what’s funny about severe stress? Not much, actually. At least not when you are in the middle of it. In fact, when you’re suffering from the body–mind disruptions that result from protracted stress, nothing seems particularly funny — because your sense of humor is one of the first things to go.
Whenever we’re really stressed out, we tend to inhabit what I call an “inflammatory mindset.” It’s a state of mind that interferes with our mental perceptions, irritates and swells our tissues, upsets our biochemical balance, and destabilizes our mood.
It’s a survival state where we set our jaws and grind our teeth, harden our eyes, shut down our hearts, and where the smallest irritations can fray our last nerve.
Once this mindset takes hold, most measures of our health, happiness, and sanity start dropping. And they typically keep dropping until one of two things happen:
1) We practice self-arrest. We witness ourselves sinking, recognize the danger signs, and initiate some sort of emergency-response protocol (rest, reflection, nourishment, movement, nature, social support); or
2) We hit bottom. We get to a place so miserable that we can no longer tolerate it, and we surrender to the fact we are going to have to change our lives and ourselves in some meaningful way.
While these two experiences are quite different, both represent resiliency at work.
The first scenario is like having a sturdy safety net strung tightly just a few inches below a high wire: You lose your balance, you go “oops!” and you hop right back on.
The second scenario is less pretty. You find yourself in freefall and wind up on the floor. But then — assuming you choose to live — an interesting thing happens: You bounce.
And sometimes, not too long after that, another interesting thing happens: You laugh.
You laugh because you are happy to be alive. You laugh because you suddenly wake up and go: “What was I thinking?” You laugh because you realize life on the other side of that bounce is so much better than whatever you were enduring before.
You laugh because you realize how many of your fellow humans have executed similar pratfalls, only to wind up in a better place as a result.
Most of us experience plenty of wobbling “oops!” moments (and at least a few spectacular, crashing plummets) at various points in our lives. So it’s worth noting: How do you handle the moments after each bounce? What are the stories you tell yourself and others about your bounce-back trials and travails?
Today, when I tell the story of my own inflammatory-mindset moments, I tend to tell them as comedic yarns. As in: Hey, remember that time all my eyelashes fell out, or I got the crazy clown-rash around my mouth, or I broke my own foot stomping in frustration, or I waited around for that one totally noncommittal guy for, like, 10 years? Oh my god, so funny!
Because now that I’ve recovered from those experiences, they really are pretty hilarious — and also very valuable — to me.
I can also tell them as sad stories, of course, and as cautionary tales. But I think they are best as funny bounce-back stories. Stories of discovery, humility, self-compassion. Stories of learning the hard way. Stories of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and running with it.
Let’s face it: For most of us, life is one long blooper reel. Yes, there are unavoidable losses and tragedies along the way. Some will never be funny. But it’s how we choose to respond to those losses — how well we master our own fall-and-bounce cycles, and how we tell the stories of those arcs — that defines us.
Resiliency is a gift that certain people seem to have from birth, but it’s also a skill that any of us can develop if we choose. And that’s why we focused this issue of Experience Life on some of the most powerful interventions available to those who want to develop their own bounce-back muscles.
I’d love to hear your stories, too — about resiliency and recovery, about the challenges you’re struggling to make sense of now. Connect with me via the social channels below. And in the meantime, happy bouncing.