Resilience in stress, adversity, and trauma
October 3rd, 2023
Torben Bergland, MD
We are kind of like rubber bands. An unstretched rubber band isn’t of much use. It lies there in the drawer awaiting to be picked up. Then, we pick it up, stretch it, and twine it around whatever we want to hold together. If we choose the right band for the right job, and stretch it to its optimum tension, or stress level, then it’s quite amazing what it can do. It’s such a small thing, but it can make such a difference and be so efficient at doing what it was created for.
All rubber bands are not created equal, though. Some can stretch a lot, providing they are of good quality and have retained their elasticity. A fresh, well-made rubber band may withstand a lot of force and stretch far until it reaches the breaking point. And, it may be easy to recognize when we are approaching its breaking point. We may feel that it’s really becoming hard to stretch it any further. The rubber band fights back and doesn’t want to stretch anymore. It’s clear to us that if we continue to increase the force and tension, then it will break. It’s time to back off.
Sometimes though, the rubber band we pick up may not be as elastic. Maybe the raw materials it’s made of weren’t optimal. Maybe it’s had a hard life, has dried up, or become old. Or, maybe it has sustained a small cut or tear. Whatever the reason, its capacity to stretch may be greatly diminished and less than we would expect. As we stretch it, it reaches the breaking point, sometimes without much or any warning, and then snaps. It’s unfortunate when a rubber band snaps. And, a snapped rubber band isn’t easily fixed. We can tie a knot of the broken ends, but well, it’s still broken. And, if we use a snapped rubber band, we must definitely take care not to overstretch it again.
We are kind of like rubber bands. If we never stretch at anything, then we won’t really accomplish anything. At the other end of the spectrum; if we overstretch, then we may break. The paradox is that the outcome at either end of the spectrum may be the same; accomplishing little or anything from not stretching, or from overstretching and breaking. Neither is desirable nor satisfying. Neither is a good way of living. Not stretching or overstretching is detrimental. The optimal way of living is somewhere in between.
The rubber band has a stretch level that is optimal and unique for that specific rubber band. Below that stretch level, it doesn’t really hold well, and above it, there’s the risk of it breaking. It doesn’t really make much sense to compare it with other rubber bands and demand that it performs like others. In order to get the most out of that individual rubber band, you must be sensitive to its unique qualities and characteristics and find its sweet spot. The same applies to us.
In life, we stretch, and we are stretched. We choose to stretch in order to reach some goal we have determined for ourselves. Sometimes, we stretch in order to live up to the expectations others have of us. But, stretching isn’t always a choice. Sometimes things simply happen that stretch us to or beyond our breaking point without us really having any say in it. It may be adversity or trauma that brings us to the brink of breaking or exceeds our capacity to deal with it. When people surpass their breaking point, they break or snap in various and unique ways. The effects are not always evident immediately, but it’s hard to escape unharmed. If it is work-related, maybe it’ll be evidenced in burnout or some other motivation or performance issue. For some, a mental health issue ensues; depression, anxiety, PTSD, or something else. For others, maybe some addiction or other kind of self-destructive behavior emerges. Some run into marital, family, or other relational problems. Whatever the outcome, whenever you push or are pushed beyond your breaking point, there will usually be some kind of negative consequences. Fortunately, if or when that happens, it’s also an opportunity to reassess, reevaluate, and reconstruct your life. Things may break us, but that doesn’t mean they destroy us. As opposed to the snapped rubber band, we may heal.
The best way to live is to make sure our rubber band is as fresh and elastic as possible and to find, respect, and maintain our individual and unique sweet spot of being optimally stretched. Note that I say optimally stretched, not maximally stretched. Many strive to accomplish as much as possible in life and therefore desire to stretch as far as possible. Many want to figure out how to go all the way, just stop short of the breaking point, and manage life there. It’s a way to potentially maximize one’s output and accomplishments, but it’s a risky strategy. When you live life at the breaking point without any safety margins, then even small things may be enough to bring you crashing down. And, even if you think you are holding up, cracks may be forming in areas away from your attention. Maybe your relationships are suffering, maybe you are neglecting your spirituality, or maybe your health habits are deteriorating.
If you recognize that you are at the brink of your breaking point, or if you already have passed it, the “true remedies” are a good place to start not only to cope with the current situation but also to bring your life back into balance and sustainability; “Pure air, sunlight, abstemiousness, rest, exercise, proper diet, the use of water, trust in divine power—these are the true remedies.” In order to manage stress, adversity, and trauma, not only surviving it, but being truly resilient, bouncing back, and enjoying life with sufficient margins to the breaking point, these principles of healthy, balanced living are simple, yet profound and effective. Research affirms that engaging with nature, proper rest and sleep, exercise, healthy and balanced nutrition, close, nurturing relationships, serving others and spirituality are key lifestyle contributors to mental wellbeing.
Unfortunately, we live in a sinful, broken world where evil is a reality. It will stretch us and sometimes overwhelm us. Still, there is comfort and hope in Jesus' words: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33 NIV).” Whatever comes our way, or wherever we find ourselves, we may seek refuge and rest in His promise: “For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you (Isa 41:13 NIV).”
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