Anti-Fragility: Transforming Stress into Strength

You can achieve great things and maintain your wellbeing. Stress and catastrophic situations can make you stronger and enrich your life in surprising ways. But only if you do a few things to adapt and become stronger. And then bring your team along.

To celebrate my first newsletter, I’m offering a complementary training on this. Read through and then click on the link below.

I walked into the ICU unit at Royal Darwin Hospital on October the thirteenth, the day after the Bali bombings. As a seasoned ICU nurse of 10 years, I was used to seeing things that most don’t and tolerating alarms going off in all directions. In that moment, I didn’t know where to look, and the noise and crowds shocked me. The 8-bed unit plus 4 in coronary care unit was now holding more than 20 of the sickest patients I had seen.

It felt like a war zone.

The room was filled with different types of military and ambulance uniforms that made the unit feel alien. Usually, an ICU patient would have one nurse; these patients had two plus support staff and ambos shuffling around the bed, sorting out lines and giving medication. Patients loomed larger in the bed than usual due to the swelling from 3rd-degree burns and shrapnel wounds from the bombs. Many were getting wheeled in and out of theatre. Organised chaos.

I only played a small part over the course of this bombing and then the next that was to come in 2005, 3 years later.

The heartbreak came from knowing that this carnage was deliberate.

That other humans did this to these people. I don’t understand it.

Getting stronger and learning

The intense challenge to coordinate such a highly skilled medical response prompted the establishment of a world-leading National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre (NCCTRC) in Darwin. The calling to treat so many burns patients at once also fast-tracked Dr Fiona Woods’ interventions, and she was named Australian of the year 3 years later.

We can learn and grow from stress and crisis and become stronger. Dr Wood got to use the skin culture innovation to treat the burns and reduce scarring, and Darwin became a centre of excellence for coordinating critical medical traumas. Both learning and upping their capacity after this intense crisis.


Dr Nassim Taleb calls this anti-fragility. That stress can make us stronger but only if we do particular things. The notion that stress and it’s not bad for us is a refreshing narrative that we need in our VUCA world.

Some even call antifragility, resilience 2.0.

You can stop berating and judging yourself for the low level of anxiety as it’s normal to feel the effects as you adapt to what is happening. The new narrative of anti-fragility points to the reality that stress changes you, and is it’s unreasonable to think of bouncing back.

You bounce forward.

That you can become stronger IF you do the following things:

1. Rest in an appropriate way after stress. If your stress at work is lots of decisions and a large cognitive load, then you need cognitive rest. Your brain needs to slow its firing of neurons down. So don’t rest with the phone in your hand or watch Netflix. It will just irritate your brain. Rest in a less stimulated way. Craft. Chop veggies. Go for a walk and be mindful. If you had an emotional day, then talk to a friend, practice self-kindness, name the feelings and have some boundaries around your time. Reframe what is happening to you via journal. Physical and spiritual drains also exist and see below for a complementary training on how to rest and restore and be more anti-fragile.

2. In that space of rest, allow processing of what occurred. A stressful period can change the way we see ourselves and the world. This is the time to be your own coach. Ask yourself: what could I learn from this? How did I develop? What did I do well? If I had my time again, what would I do differently? How can I reframe this to be more useful? What is a useful mindset to come at this issue?

3. Courageously do the things that scare you so you learn that all the good stuff is on the other side of stress. This is when you live with passion and purpose and evolve your work and your life. And you can stop protecting your team – they are have more resources than you think.

4. Help your team with the mindsets to be anti-fragile. In this fast-paced world that means have a learning mindset with a regular reflective practice.

5. Develop your leaders to coach the team to encourage critically for themselves so they can be adaptive.

To navigate the VUCA world you need new skills to evolve and deal with it.

Here is a complementary workshop on anti-fragility:

P.S. Here’s another way I can lend a hand if you need some help.

  • Amidst nursing’s leadership crisis, nurse leaders face overwhelming stress. In Transformational Nurse Identities, I reveal a radical leadership strategy that is being used by hundreds of nurse leaders who have discovered that it’s not just effective – it’s also fun. Click this link to purchase my book.
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