Stress is a Tool, Not a Toxin with Dr. G
“Recovery requires comfort and time. Resilience requires stress and change.”
– Dr. G
I had the opportunity to speak with Deborah Gilboa—known as Dr. G—a practicing physician, resilience expert, on-camera personality, author, and parent.
She's a regular contributor on the Doctors Today show Good Morning America and the Rachael Ray show. Her latest book is From Stressed to Resilient: The Guide to Handle More and Feel It Less.
- The brain’s three reflex reactions to change
- How to develop mental strength and volume down the brain’s safety mechanism
- Becoming change-competent through developing the eight resilience skills
The brain’s three reflex reactions to change
Stress is a universal experience many of us would like to avoid at all costs, by any means necessary. We're wired to rebel against stresses of any kind as a survival tactic.
Although stress is difficult, frustrating, unpleasant, and generally disruptive, it’s not a toxin. From Dr. G's perspective, it’s one of the sharpest tools in our belt.
“I'm a medical doctor. It's not that I don't understand the damage that stress can do. I do, I see it a lot.” Dr. G shares, “I was told in medical school, ‘stress is the new smoking; tell your patients to avoid it at all costs.’ Well, I would like to remind everybody you can avoid smoking, but you cannot avoid stress.”
If we’re feeling stressed, it can seem like we’re doing life wrong or missing something—that’s not the case. Stress isn’t only a byproduct of living like exhaust is a byproduct of driving a car; it’s fundamental.
“Our brains view all change as stressful, even the stuff we want, even the good stuff.” Dr. G explains, “Our brains, while they have a million different functions, have only one job, and that job is to keep us alive. Our brains are suspicious of all potential change, even the stuff that will be amazing.”
From job promotions to new relationships, our brain wants to hit the breaks and keep everything the same, even if that’s not what is best for us.
Our brain has three reflex questions when confronted with change:
- What could I lose?
- Should I trust this?
- What will be uncomfortable about it?
How to develop mental strength and volume down the brain’s safety mechanism
Our brain insists on checking for loss, distress, and discomfort. Not as a reflection of who we are or because we’re closed-minded, but because change is a threat and our brain registers that we’re in danger.
“The bad news is that our amygdala—the part of the brain right in the center of our skulls—insists on looking at all changes as suspect. The good news is that, although we cannot turn that safety mechanism off, we can turn it down.” Dr. G explains, “All we have to do is ask ourselves a question. We don't even have to have the answer to the question.”
That one question is: What choices do I have?
When we ask that question, we engage the prefrontal ventromedial cortex, the part right behind our forehead, at the front of our brain. It doesn't turn off the amygdala, but it dials it down from a 10 to a five, depending on the person. As we begin to think, that changes our brain chemistry and gives us something to engage with.
“If you're able to make a list, or if you feel stuck, ask someone else, or do a little research, then you can engage with one or more of those choices. That allows you to reunify and be resilient.” Dr. G continues.
We must hone and exercise this ability, just as one would prepare for a marathon. Training and consistency are vital. Building a tolerance for stress goes beyond ignoring it or distracting ourselves from it.
“Stress is to resilience and mental fitness as exercise is to strength and body fitness.” Dr. G shares, “Another similarity is if I decided I was going to train for a 10k, and you knew that I had recently recovered from an ankle fracture, you might say, ‘are you ready?’ You need more recovery time because recovery requires time and comfort. Resilience requires stress and change.”
Becoming change-competent through developing the eight resilience skills
Dr. G defines resilience as the ability to navigate change and come through it mission-oriented. Meaning even through upheaval or hardship, we reach the other side still true to our intentions and purpose.
“The promise that I make is about helping people become change competent because it is unrealistic to say we will become change ready or change welcoming—that's not how our brains work; the chemicals don't back that up.” Dr. G shares, “But we can become more competent and better at navigating change. That does not mean better at loving or rushing towards it with open arms, but we can go from being resistant to competent.”
Resilience is less like a character trait—humor, optimism, kindness, and so on—and more like a muscle. This fact is good news because we’re not stuck with what we get. Like a muscle, we can train it. Resilience is a skill we can learn.
“You can become an Olympian of change if you want to, or you can just get out of Little League if that’s what you’re looking for.” Dr. G continues, “It turns out resilience comes down to eight traits.”
Based on Dr. G’s extensive research and experience, she has determined those eight traits as the following:
- Building connections
- Setting boundaries
- Opening to possibilities
- Managing discomfort
- Setting goals
- Finding options
- Taking action
“The whole point of being resilient as an individual is to get the life you want. It's never too late.” Dr. G shares, “This is the other thing I find encouraging about this: wherever you're at, you can use the stress that you're navigating to get stronger.”
Which of these eight traits resonates with you? What is something you can do today to develop resilience?