How to Steady Your Nerves and Draw on Personal Strength in the Face of Adversity

When we’re in the midst of chaos drowning in uncertainty, we need practical methods to employ. Here are three.

Brian McFadden
7 min readMay 12, 2018


We were on vacation but I felt raw, exhausted, beat-down and scariest of all, vulnerable.

The plan was to “get-away from it all” as they say and relax by the beach for a week. And then, literally all our plans — both immediate and future — were grinded into a puree and life suddenly felt like a running blender without a lid.

It began with our son getting sick the first night we arrived. High-fevers and rashes all over his body sent us into the night on the phone with poison control. Then, the next morning my wife gets a call from HR at work and the company has shut its doors — no severance. The day after that, I’m informed that one of my largest contracts is going to be adjusted and compensation will be sliced by 50%. And for good measure the weather forecast predicated wrong and the real-time weather signaled clouds and rain for the entire duration of our stay. Our sunny beach vacation — both literally and figuratively — went gloomy.

When people panic, they make mistakes. They override common sense. Clear, objective thinking goes out the window when adversity strikes. Immediate reaction is usually the default — and usually it’s the wrong action.

I’m no exception. Here I was trying to live out our planned vacation to the letter and then we get slapped with some hard news. I wanted to freak-out, but luckily, the past whoppers of my life have taught me that there is another way to manage such a situation. Ancient wisdom and modern science has equipped me to steady my nerves and draw on personal strength in times of adversity.

To be resilient — one of life’s greatest skills — is one that is learned, not gifted. Since we are all guaranteed difficulty on this side of earth, being resilient is quite possibly the greatest virtue we can cultivate for ourselves. To possess such a quality is to be able to get up after failing, or shoulder great trials only to become better and stronger once the storm has passed.

Before we look at some practical strategies on how to become resilient, let’s look at a story.

The Donkey Story

The donkey didn’t have many more days ahead of him.

He was a working animal that was loyal to his owner. The master, however was not grateful to the donkey and once his utility started to waver, he wanted to get rid of the donkey.

The master took the donkey to an abandon well. The donkey was calm and trusting. It took no effort to push the donkey into the well.

The master shoveled in some dirt into the well to bury the donkey and to his surprise the donkey said, “Please throw more dirt onto me.”

Curious, the master looked down the well and paired eyes with the donkey who went on: “Each time you throw a shovel of dirt onto me, I shake it off, climb onto it, stomp it down so I am a bit closer to the top.”

Cultivating Resilience

The donkey provides a simple example of resilience. We often gravitate to such stories that highlight the bounce-back after hardship. We marvel at the tales of those who shoulder adversity with such bravado and strength. However, resilience is a virtue we admire after the fact.

Once we realize this perspective, equipping questions then follow: How do we deal with the storm in the midst of adversity? How do we steady our nerves to make sure we don’t collapse? Is it possible to keep things together in order to give ourselves the chance to rebound, recovery and come back stronger?

What follows are a few ways we can steady our nerves and draw on personal strength in the face of adversity.

Tame the Mind With the Breath

When faced with adversity, our brains react quickly signaling the release of a flood of hormones in an attempt to protect us. This causes our breathing to shorten and quicken. By doing so, we lower our ability to think clearly and accurately — which happen to be the two things we need during times of duress. Amy Arnsten, a professor at Yale discovered that when our brains are exposed to threat it significantly reduces the activity in the prefrontal cortex — the region of the brain responsible for reasoning, self-control and forward thinking.

Taming the mind with the breath is perhaps the most economical and practical way to steady the nerves when we feel like falling apart.

The reason why breathing is a bedrock habit for steadying the nerves habit is largely due to the impact it has on our vagal tone.

The vagus nerve has multiple entry points that diverge from two stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem that wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen, touching your heart and most major organs along the way. This nerve is all over the place.

The vagus nerve is also the command center for our sympathetic nervous system — the system responsible for helping slow our heart rate, blood pressure and downshift organ function.

The vagus nerve, when stimulated with intentional breathing, is also responsible for the production of “Vagusstoff,” a term coined by German physiologist, Otto Loewi. Vagusstoff was later discovered as a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine — which is assists in the formation of our memory, verbal, and logical reasoning, as well as the ability to concentrate.

Here’s the upshot:

When you practice intentional breathing, you increase your mental acuity while lowering performance anxiety.

I like to use the 4–7–8 breathing technique created by Dr. Weil. It’s a practical way to heighten vagal tone when staring adversity in the face. Here’s the simple framework.

  • To start, exhale completely through your mouth. Really empty yourself of breath.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a seven count.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth audibly to a mental count of eight.
  • This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Visit Your Crucibles

We all have our own trial stories. Those times when the world caved in on us and somehow, someway, we survived.

During times of adversity it’s wisdom to draw back on these stories to remind ourselves that we’ve been through tough times before, and thus, have built up some thick skin through the process. Meaning, we got what it takes to get through this obstacle right in front of us.

Harvard Business School professor Bill George highlights this method of “revisiting your crucibles in his book True North. Revisiting past trials, whether personal or professional, help us draw inner strength when we need sturdiness the most. Here are some equipping questions to employ this method:

  • When have I handled a difficult time in the past with courage, strength and fortitude?
  • What virtues, lessons or strategies helped me overcome the trial?
  • Who can confirm (friend, colleague, spouse, etc.) that I have what it takes to overcome difficult times?

Identify Your Tiny Ikigai

When the storm hits, we are thrown into a whirlwind of uncertainty. Often times many of the factors of the situation are beyond our agency.

However, regardless of how turbulent the crisis there are things we can know for sure.

In other words, there is always solid ground for us to plant our feet on. This small exercise — identifying what we know for sure — has been shown to help us be more resilient when dealing with stressful and chaotic situations.

Japanese culture has a term with no English translation called “Ikigai” which is best understood as the reason for being.

During times of difficulty, it’s sometimes impossible to see life as a whole piece. The alternative is to focus on what we can control in the here and now. I like to extend the concept of Ikigai and drill it down into fragments of the day by calling it “Moment to Moment Ikigai”. In other words, what’s my reason for being in this moment?

This is incredibly nuanced but examples can highlight the strategy:

  • Right now, my Ikigai is to be strong for my son just for a few hours.
  • Right now, my Ikigai is to get to the gym because I know I feel better when I’m done.
  • Right now, my Ikigai is to complete the presentation so my direct report can shine at the board meeting.
  • Right now, my Ikigai is to sit for 10 minutes without any input.
  • Right now, my Ikigai is to brush up my resume, contact five leads and follow up on one past client.
  • Right now my Ikigai is to get my house in order — wash the dishes, sweep the floors, run a load of laundry.
  • Right now, my Ikigai is to volunteer my time at a soup kitchen for two hours.

By identifying our tiny Ikigai on a moment to moment basis, we train our brain to look for meaningful things to do.

I’ve adopted this method from Laurence Gonzales who wrote Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Survival. He highlights that keeping the mind active on meaningful activities helps us shoulder difficult times:

Remember the saying “Get organized or die.” In the wake of trauma, “Work, work, work,” as Richard Mollica wrote. He is a psychiatrist at Harvard who studies trauma. “This is the single most important goal of traumatized people throughout the world.” The hands force order on the mind.

Ancient wisdom across many traditions tell us that none of us are exempt from difficult times — but what we do have control on how we respond. We all want to be the story of the one who took a shot to the chin and got back up. But it’s the messy middle — when we’re in the midst of chaos drowning in uncertainty— that we need practical methods to employ.

To steady our nerves and draw on personal strength during times of adversity we can control our breath, revisit our crucibles and identity our tiny, moment to moment Ikigai. By doing these three things we give ourselves the best chance to not only recover, but come back stronger.

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