Stress is relative. It can be the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, a scary diagnosis, or a traumatic event. It can also look like the accumulated micro-traumas of everyday life: deadlines, exams, depressing world events, finances, even rush-hour. Our body doesn’t necessarily distinguish between the types of stress. That’s what makes resilience so important.
In fact, our body can’t tell the difference between an impending deadline and an approaching tiger. Both send our nervous system into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, which is known as sympathetic dominance, a state in which stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline tend to run high.
Faced with a tiger, this is an excellent and short-lived physiological response. However, in the midst of persistent daily stressors, this otherwise adaptive response leads to burn-out and an inability to cope with the incoming demands of modern day life.
Enter stress resilience. We can’t always eliminate the source of stress, but we can consciously change the way we respond to it. Stress resilience is like an emotional muscle that requires both mental and physical effort. The more we flex it, the stronger and more adaptive we become when faced with adversity.
How To Build Resilience During Stressful Times:
Put things in perspective.
Look forward and ask yourself, “Will this thing that I’m stressing about make a difference in a day? A year? 10 years?” Then think back and reflect on times in the past when you have overcome similar hurdles. If you managed then, you can do it again. This form of mindfulness has a transformative effect on how you perceive your current situation.
Create realistic goals.
Consider small tasks you can do daily that move you towards tackling bigger objectives. Even little, consistent accomplishments contribute to a sense of agency and wellbeing when faced with stress. Daily wins create a positive feedback loop that contributes to resilience.
Write it down.
Make a list of the things that are stress-inducing. Divide that list into the things you have control over and the things you don’t. If you can remove stressors from your life, what are you waiting for? Next, prioritize and reorganize.
Look at that list you made. For the stressors you can’t eliminate, put the essentials at the top of the list. You can’t, for example, avoid that deadline, but you can put laundry or dishes or fixing an appliance lower down the list.
Make time for self-care.
The basic acts of self-care are essential during stressful times. Sleeping, eating regular meals, and exercising are non-negotiable, but part of coping with adversity requires making time to do the things that make you feel whole: a bath, time with friends, engaging in a favourite hobby, movie night, nature time. Whatever your form of self-care, check in with yourself to ensure it is something that helps you feel calm and grounded.
Consider the opportunity for personal growth.
Adversity has the potential to teach us something, both about ourselves and about the world. One way to harness this opportunity for growth is by practicing gratitude on a daily basis. Another is to contemplate what you’ve learned from a stressful situation in the past.
Gratitude and awareness of the lessons embedded in challenging times are ways of actively reframing your narrative and actually rewiring your brain and nervous system.
A negative narrative in a stressful situation reinforces the adverse effects chronic stress has on our bodies and minds. Introducing a positive narrative on the other hand, is a powerful way to develop stress resilience through neuroplasticity.
Regulate your nervous system.
Deep breathing, yoga, meditation, forest bathing, humming, singing, or chanting are all forms of nervous system regulation. These techniques actively tell your body that it is safe and that there is an alternative to the persistent “fight or flight” state to which we become accustomed. Giving your body a glimpse of “rest and digest,” or parasympathetic mode, is a bit like a reset button.
Reaching out to family, friends, and health care providers is an important step when you’re feeling overwhelmed. The support of community is vital in overcoming and adapting to stressful situations.
Our stress hormone, cortisol, is countered by the “hugging hormone,” oxytocin, which is produced during positive physical contact, but is also released during any supportive human (or animal) contact. Rather than isolate at home, connect with people who can support you like a counsellor at Wellin5.
People often feel they have to “tough out” the tough times or go it alone. This may work in the short term, but over time our brains and bodies begin to deteriorate under relentless stress. Fortunately, with awareness, mindful decisions, and conscious actions, we can reprogram how we respond to stress.
Using some of the techniques suggested above promotes a healthy, resilient response to stress that allows an individual to thrive and grow from adversity.
How do you deal with stress? Feel free to share your experiences building resilience with the Wellin5 Community in the comments below — we’d love to hear about your journey!
Dr. Nicole VanPoelgeest is a health writer and naturopathic doctor with a holistic approach to mental health. Learn more about her practice.