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Wellbeing 2020 – Antifragile immunity to stress

Two months ago, I wrote an article about the transformational aspects of shock. More specifically, how ‘shock points’ function by undoing the status quo of any system, and that with awareness we can use such stressors to develop rather than knock us down. This notion of improving through stress is a widely researched phenomenon in medicine, and notably documented in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestselling book, Antifragile – Things that Gain from Disorder. The basic premise is that antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness; the resilient resists shocks and stays the same, whereas antifragile gets better.

The concept of antifragility is, in many ways, all encompassing. It applies to success, our health – the long-term viability of an organism or system.

I’m not here to throw stones at resilience or put antifragile on a pedestal. I believe both aspects have merit and regardless of what life ‘throws us’, we can learn to navigate the fragile-antifragile spectrum to experience joy, freedom, and success in our lives. Imagine antifragility as a vaccine that helps us develop immunity to stress, so that we improve with, not resist, things that challenge us. Similar to a vaccine, whereby a small dose of a stressor (virus) is taken and causes the immune system to develop antibodies, likewise, we can learn to detect, measure, and positively transform shocks to improve wellbeing.

So, how does one go about moving from a fragile to an antifragile state? Firstly, there’s no ‘quick fix’ or magic wand that is waved to be instantly antifragile. The truth is, we don’t always have the tools to deal with stress in an effective way. If that were the case, we would all be breezing through the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic right now. Being antifragile doesn’t mean avoiding or denying feelings of anxiety and stress. Rather, we train ourselves to summon the opposite responses: we can combat stress with relaxation techniques such as ‘box breathing’; despair with hope; anxiety with yoga, mindfulness, and meditation practices. If we can anticipate significant threats to wellbeing, such as the imminent loss of a loved one, or have suffered such a loss, we can learn to practice self-compassion and give ourselves permission to grieve. Importantly, the rite of passage to antifragility is uncertain, often chaotic, and requires a tonne of patience and consistency.

Consider the stress caused by gossip, losing a job, a broken relationship, or death of a loved one; situations many of us will encounter throughout our lifetime with varying degrees of physical and emotional trauma. If we don’t learn how to process and adapt to these situations we might always be stuck at the fragile end of the spectrum. The invitation, however, is to allow the trauma of these situations to temporarily weaken us and learn to reflect on the feelings we experience with ‘unattached presence’ – tuning-in to our physical and emotional responses. This might seem counterproductive or defeatist – even outright crazy – but when we learn to mindfully navigate and reconcile trauma, instead of sinking into a depression, or being overwhelmed with anxiety, we can elevate our leadership of stressful situations and actively get stronger.

“The fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile grows from disorder, and the robust doesn’t care too much.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

As humans I believe that we are wired for antifragility, albeit an important step in its development is to embrace complexity and variation, and not be too attached to short-term efficiencies and outcomes. Understandably, the current global health emergency is resulting in heightened levels of stress and uncertainty. What is your experience of the Covid-19 lockdown? Are there particular aspects causing you stress?

Ask yourself: how can I develop antifragile immunity to essentially benefit from shocks – to thrive and grow when exposed to uncertainty, volatility, and randomness? Consider changing how you might usually respond to disorder, and learn to step back from chaos and stress, mindfully process it, and use it to your advantage.

Until next time,


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