We ask Prof. Dr. Gregor Hasler: How do you strengthen your resilience?

Especially in times of the corona pandemic, so-called resilience, i.e. the ability to endure psychologically stressful situations, is of great importance. In an interview,  Prof. Dr. Gregor Hasler  how we strengthen our resilience and find more serenity in individual and global crises.

Prof. Dr. Gregor Hasler is an award-winning psychiatrist, psychotherapist and neuroscientist as well as President of the Swiss Society for Bipolar Disorders. As a professor, he teaches psychiatry and psychotherapy at the University of Friborg (Switzerland) and also uses his expertise on topics such as stress resilience, the gut-brain axis and psychotropic drugs as a book author.

Interview with Gregor Hasler about resilience and dealing with stress

To be resilient, what does that mean and can you train it?

Gregor Hasler: Resilience is a new term for psychological resilience or stress resistance. The term contains different concepts. I consider the conscious avoidance of stress to be an important strategy for remaining resilient, although this strategy rarely appears in advice.

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The term resilience comes from materials research. There it means that a physical load cannot harm a material at all, or that the material is able to quickly return to its original state after the load.

Psychologically, this means that the stress  either  does not trigger a stress response in me or triggers a reaction that lasts only for a short time and does not become chronic.

In order to remain resilient, it is therefore important to recognize stress reactions at an early stage: These include changes in emotional experience, but also changes in body functions and changes in thinking and behavior.

Typical stress reactions:

  • Emotions: Fear, exhaustion, depressed mood, inner restlessness, irritability, lack of energy, feeling of worthlessness and meaninglessness, tearfulness, listlessness, lack of interest
  • Thinking / cognition: cynicism, pessimism, forgetfulness, circles of thought, lack of focus, hesitation, inability to plan, postponing tasks
  • Body: Neck tension, diarrhea / constipation, unclear diffuse pain, sleep disorders, changes in appetite
  • Behavior: blockade (freezing), escape, fight
Resilience seems more important than ever, especially in this day and age. Covid-19 brings with it a lot of insecurity and social restrictions. What does all this do to our psyche?

Hasler: Yes, it is currently particularly important to be resilient or to build up resilience. The stress of the pandemic is complex. The virus can trigger existential fears about the body, life and death . The measures can cause existential fears with regard to the economic situation and social status .

We must not forget that unemployment is the greatest social risk factor for depression and thus increases the risk of suicide. In addition, social isolation weakens important factors that promote resilience, such as social support and physical contact.

Can existential fears, insecurity and stress in such a situation, which has now spanned several months, cause permanent damage to health?

Hasler: The duration of stress is a very important characteristic. Our brains are well prepared for brief stress: over thousands of years we have learned to endure the stress of an animal attack or a storm. We are less well prepared for persistent stress , for example from chronic conflicts in the family or at work. The pandemic and the lockdown with all the uncertainty represent the typical stress for which we are not optimally prepared. We therefore have to actively build up our resilience accordingly.

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What tips do you have for surviving this crisis in a mentally healthy manner? What factors are most important when it comes to being a resilient person?

Hasler: By controlling our attention, we have a potent means of dealing with chronic, diffuse stress. We should consciously limit the time in which we deal with the pandemic. The rest of the time we should focus on positive things , such as the garden, a good book, sports, etc. Furthermore, we should not become passive with fear. It’s important to stay active and have a daily structure.

According to Prof. Dr. Gregor Hasler encourages positive thoughts and an active, structured lifestyle to promote stress resilience.
What role does our intestines play in this? What does digestion have to do with our psyche and how big is the influence of the intestine on our stress resilience?

Hasler: New, quite revolutionary studies show that our intestines are an important player in our resilience. The studies on intestinal bacteria are particularly exciting. If the gut bacteria of a depressed patient are transferred into the gut of a mouse, the mouse becomes depressed too.

This shows that intestinal bacteria can have a causal influence on the psyche and resilience . This fits in with study results that show that certain foods, for example fermented products such as yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, Parmesan cheese, pickles, sauerkraut and apple cider vinegar or the Mediterranean diet, strengthen resilience.

What do you personally do when you find yourself in a psychologically stressful situation? What methods do you use to bring your stress levels back to healthy levels quickly?

Hasler: I try to concentrate fully on the moment . I do this by doing something consciously, e.g. B. very conscious walking, consciously enjoying my food, or immersing myself in a text. I also try to recognize negative thoughts early on and to push them out of my consciousness. I learned this in a meditation course and since then have practiced it and applied it successfully. Another strategy is to always think in terms of options. What if option A is not possible, is there an option B or C?

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I also try to see the benefit of a difficult situation. I take the physical aspect of resilience very seriously. I have a regular daily routine and walk for at least 20 minutes a day , climb stairs and keep a regular eating rhythm with at least one cooked meal a day. I also try to focus on the larger context, the wider perspective. When one looks at the earth from the moon, the earthly problems often become quite minor.

Despite the obvious negative consequences, do you also see positive aspects of the new everyday life from which we can even draw strength and increase our resilience?

Hasler: Many of my usual activities that are particularly fun have now been eliminated, for example congress trips, lectures, and exchanges with professional colleagues. This gives me the opportunity to deal more intensively with the remaining aspects of my life, with my family, life in the neighborhood, the scientific work in my work group. I am more aware of many things than before and ask myself important questions. What is really important to me in life? This is not only a burden, but also an asset.

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