Becoming resilient is a challenge, not a threat.
One of the standbys that we have fallen into at home is watching reruns of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a show that I could not stand, then began to be a big fan of. While watching it before, I would just hear the yelling and get turned off. Now, after more years of coaching and being coached, the scenarios, emotions, mind games and tactics are far more interesting to watch. At the heart of the show is the ever present and perma-scowling Gordon Ramsay with the impossible standards and the quick reaction to throw food across the kitchen in disgust. Surrounding him are a group of chefs competing for a job in one of his restaurants as the head chef which carries with it a hefty salary.
Over the course of an episode there are two main segments, the challenge and the service. During the challenge segments, the chefs are given a difficult dish or puzzle to solve and a time limit to complete it. The challenge section relies heavily on creativity and problem solving. The chefs get graded and winners get rewarded but beyond having to prep the kitchen and some demeaning chores there is no real punishment for losing. But, during the dinner service, it is all business, stress to the max, and whoever is the weak link is going home at the end of the night.
It is so interesting to see the chefs who produced amazing culinary works during the challenge become useless and vapor-locked during the service when the task is so much more fundamental and scope so narrow. The same chef that skillfully seared, reduced and created is now getting thrown out of the kitchen for serving raw chicken for the second time in a row! Herein lies the magic of this program and a lesson that we can all learn from without having to sit through the yelling. The tug of war and interplay of our reaction to challenge vs threat and the ability to build resilience.
Resiliency is a very common word right now in the first responder world and building it is something that many people are seeking out. While at the Illinois Fire Fighter Peer Support Symposium last spring, the idea of resilience, what it means, and how to build it was a focal point of a majority of the presentations, including my own. Well, it turns out that building resiliency depends on us, as much as it depends on the event. Being able to ‘bounce back’ or ‘get back up after getting knocked down’ is the hallmark of resiliency. As well as ‘learning from our losses and coming back better next time’. As it turns out, physical fitness is one of the best ways to increase resiliency and continue to build on it in the future. “Physical fitness confers resilience because regular exercise and/or physical activity induces positive physiologic and psychological benefits, protects against the potential consequences of stressful events, and prevents many chronic diseases.” (1) Just being in good physical condition or starting on the road to it can set the tone for resiliency.
Those positive physiological benefits being referred to are also more than just theory. In another study looking at threat vs challenge they used college kids and a putting event. One group was shown the event, given instructions and guidance while the other had the same putting event but received a completely different description of it. The methods were used to make one group feel prepared and ready and the other threatened by the unknown. The findings were clear, “The results demonstrate that challenge and threat states can have an immediate effect on motor task performance, with a challenge state resulting in superior performance relative to a threat state.” (2) They also recorded things like; muscle activation, heart rate, cardiac output, calm eye movement, and swing mechanics. What they found were the biomarkers in the challenge group fell into an optimal or near optimal range, while the threat group recorded excess muscle tension, a lack of calm eye movement, and a higher heart rate.
So, if our perception of events dictates our response to them on a physical, emotional and even chemical level, can we use a positive perception of stress as a builder of resilience? I’d say absolutely. Researchers who were summarized in 2019 also agree “recent work supports an alternative picture of the effects of adversity on human functioning, such that a moderate amount of adversity - when compared with none or high levels - can be beneficial.” (3) Think of it as the age old possibly true but maybe fable of giving children a tiny bit of snake venom every day so that by the time the children grow up, they will have an immunity to the poison. Similarly, by giving ourselves a moderate amount of physical discomfort on a regular basis, we may be better equipped to handle stress as a challenge rather than a threat and increase our chances of success in that moment.
The key to all this, as gathered from the above reading, is the mechanism that we challenge ourselves with. Impossible tasks that make us question our ability and safety from the start are not those which can be the most beneficial. The successful group in the putting challenge felt that they had the knowledge, ability and incentive to at least give the event an enthusiastic try. If we are lacking that, then our performance during the event may suffer. Re-enter Gordon Ramsay, who has the innate knack to make a seasoned chef feel so under-prepared, un-skilled, and threatened with elimination from the show, that a fully cooked chicken breast is an impossible task.
So where do we go from here? Knowing that stress in the form of physical fitness, perceived as a challenge is a recipe for resilience, I’d say that the answer is simply to do more of it. The last study I’ll use is titled The Ability of Older People to Overcome Adversity: A Review of the Resilience Concept. Incredibly, but not surprisingly, the determinants of success and resiliency were extremely similar to the advice that I have given numerous first responders and clients in their path back to fitness. “a number of environmental factors were identified including social support from community, family and professionals as well as access to care, availability of resources and the influence of social policy and societal responses.” (4) Simply put, it takes a village to help any one of us at any point in our lives. If you’re searching for a way to build resilience, build your team. Combining an increase in physical ability with a support staff is the one-two punch. Having an outside professional who is well versed, experienced and cares about your success is the best person to issue those challenges to you. Without that coach and system, even the most plain and boring chicken breast piece of stress can be threat enough to get you kicked out of Hell’s Kitchen.
Deuster, P. A., & Silverman, M. N. (2013). Physical fitness: A pathway to health and resilience. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24146240
Moore LJ, Vine SJ, Wilson MR, Freeman P. The effect of challenge and threat states on performance: an examination of potential mechanisms. Psychophysiology. 2012;49(10):1417–1425. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.2012.01449.x
Lines, R. L., Crane, M., Ducker, K. J., Ntoumanis, N., Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C., Fletcher, D., & Gucciardi, D. F. (2019, April 01). Profiles of adversity and resilience resources: A latent class analysis of two samples. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30932182
Van Kessel, G. (2013). The ability of older people to overcome adversity: A review of the resilience concept. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23332474