Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of stress you are experiencing in your life that you feel you cannot control? The good news is you can control cultivating a skill that will enable you to bounce back to your optimal, balanced state when life knocks you down. This skill is resilience.
Resilience allows us to overcome stress and adversity without experiencing disruption in our optimal functioning, either psychologically or physically.
Unlike futile attempts to reduce stressors which we cannot control, resilience involves growing inner strengths that help us regulate our response to stressors. As a result, we are able to mitigate the development of unhealthy stress-coping mechanisms such as compassion fatigue, burnout, and/or mental illness.
If life’s ups and downs often take you off kilter or if you feel overwhelmed and stuck by what seem to be endless challenges and adversity, I invite you to explore different ways to boost your capacity for resilience. Research shows that resilience is invaluable in helping you increase physical, psychological, and mental health; improve performance; and enhance personal relationships.
The truth about stress
Stress affects almost 70% of us and is linked to more than 90% of today’s disease. We refer to stress as the epidemic of the century, and we blame it for feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and unhappy.
In actual fact, what we experience as stress is simply all the changes our body makes to rise to the challenges of life. The pressure we feel when we have to step up to these challenges and demands is because when we step up we temporarily leave our home base where we function and operate in balance. This home base is known as homeostasis and is the state when our body systems, such as our immune system, operate at their best.
When we are dealing with the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, a horrible tragedy, or a manager who is ineffective and manages by fear, we disturb our optimal balance to keep up with these challenges.
Allostasis is the process by which our body attempts to return to our home base of homeostasis in the face of an actual or perceived environmental, or psychological stressor. Although our body’s systems promote survival in the short term when dealing with stressors, if stressors are prolonged over an extended period of time they can cause significant damage and lead to disease.
Allostatic load (McEwen and Stellar, 1993) describes the amount of changes the body has to make to adapt to stressors. The higher the amount is, the higher the potential of occurrence of damage to our bodies.
For example, acute stress promotes the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which in small quantities reduce inflammation in the body. However, chronic stress leads to high levels of cortisol, which ends up suppressing our immune function, which increases our susceptibility to disease.
Stress itself is not the actual problem. The real problem is that we operate under our stress response for way longer than what we were physiologically designed to do.
What is the reason that we are operating under our stress response for too long, and how can we bounce back from our stressed state to our balanced state?
Why resilience is the best response to stress
Some life challenges are more stressful than others. But whether we are dealing with the loss of a loved one, a divorce, a death, or some other adversity, pain and suffering in life is inevitable.
However, a hidden culprit seems to perpetuate our suffering and delays bouncing back to a place of balance. This culprit is our thoughts and perceptions about the situation, which often lead to behaviors that do not help.
Consider your biggest stressors over this last month and why they felt so stressful. Ask yourself: Was it the situation itself that kept you up at night, or led you to relieve your negative feelings with unhealthy behaviors like having one too many glasses of wine to de-stress, or was it your thoughts about the situation?
When we get laid off, for example, it is not the single event of losing our job that increases the imbalance in our body and contributes to the heavy load of stressors. It is also our thoughts and all the energy we invest in considering and worrying about all the things that could go wrong: the possibility of losing our car, our home, our ability to survive.
Resilience is therefore a choice to take back control of our thoughts and how we want to interpret life situations so that we return to our home base sooner. In this more balanced state our body is not flooded with stress hormones, we have access to our thinking brain, and our body systems are able to operate well to support us through the challenging situation.
Existing research supports that resilience has been shown to increase physical emotional and mental wellbeing, performance and relational health. It also has been linked to improved finances, academic performance and lower incidence of mental health issues that typically develop under chronic exposure to stress.
We all have the capacity to nudge our brain to take a new path to staying calm during difficult situations so we can avoid the negative consequences of being stressed out all the time. Resilient people suffer just as much as their non-resilient counterparts when they experience the death of a loved one. But they choose thoughts, behaviors, and actions that help them make intelligent use of their emotions to mitigate the long-term impact of chronic stress such as burnout or depression.
Cultivating stress resilience in life is not a one-size-fits-all approach and it is a process that we must remain committed to. It is simple, but not easy, to guide our brain to recognizing the control we have over situations, even if they are devastating ones.
Here are some simple, everyday actions you can begin doing to enhance your resilience and change your response to stressors:
1. Start your day on the right track.
Set your alarm a little early and give yourself the opportunity to start your day with a gratitude meditation. If you are not yet comfortable with meditation, you can give yourself the space to recount three things you truly feel grateful for before you even get out of bed in the morning. Your brain does not know the difference between your thoughts and reality, so setting a positive tone for your day will start you off in a state of balance.
2. Challenge your stressors.
Stress is the non-specific response of the body to demands from the environment. Ninety-five percent of what we worry about never happens. What worries can you say no to today to decrease the demands you place on your body?
3. Embrace your vulnerabilities and imperfections.
Vulnerabilities are part of our common human connectedness. Resisting, hiding, and isolating are traits that are not rewarded by the environment and actually activate our stress response. If any of your characteristics sabotage the accomplishment of your desired outcomes, use them as an opportunity for personal development and change.
4. Change your brain’s propensity to assume the worst by using positivity.
Have you noticed your tendency to assume the worst more times than not? This is because our brain evolved this way in order to keep us safe. By directing your attention to any positive aspects of a negative experience, you actually become an active participant in rewiring your brain for happiness.
5. Just breathe.
Did you know that your very own breath has the power to calm your heart rate when life events disturb its balance? Your breath is the only bodily function that involves both voluntary and involuntary muscles and nerves. By resting your attention on your breath and observing it become deeper and more regular, you actually activate your parasympathetic response, which is your built-in antidote to your stress response.
Human connection has been proven to be a potent stress reliever. A recent study showed diminished nervous-system-threat-response when we hold the hand of a loved one. At times of stress resist the tendency to isolate and reach out to someone you trust.
7. Be kind to yourself like you are to your best friend.
Self-criticism and self-judgment activate your stress response as much as being chased by a mountain lion. When you realize you are slipping down the slope of negative self-talk, shift your attention to five things you did well in the last 24 hours.
8. Minimize unnecessary headaches.
Little every day annoyances like looking for your car keys on your way to an appointment can add quite a bit of stress to your life. What small daily tasks can you organize to save yourself time and headaches?
9. Nurture your beautiful body.
Instead of feeling frustrated with the lack of time to engage in a gym ritual, find every day ways that are within your control to nurture your body. Strive for balance and not perfection in finding ways you can nurture your body consistently. Dance like no one is watching. Add five positive actions to your nutrition or activity levels for every negative choice you make.
10. Nurture your beautiful mind.
Resist the habit of allowing negative information flow from the outside world to be your focus and attention. Instead, feed your mind positive information. Listen to TED Talks, read a book, listen to a guided meditation, recount your blessings, or engage in voluntary work toward a cause you are passionate about. Much like enriching your garden with water and Miracle Grow, feeding your mind positive content will provide you with the necessary nutrients to cultivate a stress-resilient brain.
11. Quiet your mind with meditation.
Meditation is the simple practice of directing your attention to what is here now and to not allow it to wander off to worries about the past and the future. This simple practice has been shown to produce a myriad of physiological and psychological benefits by robust scientific research. Just do it!
12. Develop a night-time ritual of celebrating your daily victories.
We often lay awake at night focusing on things we could have done better. What if instead we get into the habit of acknowledging all the things we did well? Research shows that directing our mental activity to things that make us smile is a powerful way to use our mind to develop a happier brain.
Challenges and adversities are an inevitable part of our life, which we cannot realistically eliminate or reduce. And these challenges will often cause stress. However, we can cultivate resilience, a skill that allows us to cope with stressors in healthy ways by making intelligent use of our emotions to bounce back to a balanced state quickly and avoid maladaptive coping.
Although resilience is a skill we do not develop overnight, making small changes that re-set the tone on how we view life’s hurdles allows us to experience the joy of our power to change our response to life situations. This is possible even during extremely stressful and devastating times.
By incorporating practices that can address the myriad of stress issues within our control, we can improve our ability to cope with stressful situations and maintain our optimal functioning. We can increase physical, psychological, and mental health; improve performance; and greatly enhance personal relationships.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
How do you cultivate resilience? What challenges you on this path? Your views, insights, and experiences are valuable in creating a better world by making stress resilience sustainable and practical for all of us.
I also offer a one-page resource you can use to increase your resilience via making intelligent use of your emotions. You can join the Myndzen community and have this sent to your inbox by clicking on this link: bit.ly/JoinMyndZen
By joining the Myndzen community, you will also be notified as soon as additional resilience resources become available this year from Myndzen.