Stress and Resilience: Two Sides of the Same Coin
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all, but in different ways, hitting some harder than others. Even for those who have been similarly disrupted, how they’ve responded might be drastically different: some might have been completely thrown off balance, while others seem to have taken it in stride. What makes some people so much more resilient? Are they born better able to deal with stress? Maybe, but not necessarily.
Resilience has been a popular topic of study in recent years, and researchers have found various behaviors and attitudes that can improve people’s resilience. Not surprisingly, these behaviors and attitudes look a lot like those that have been found to be some of the most effective stress management techniques (another popular topic of study, and probably a topic for a future post, so stay tuned). After all, resilience basically means having a healthy response to adversity. In other words, being resilient means having a healthy stress management strategy.
Some people are naturally more inclined to practice some of these healthy stress management techniques. But anyone can use these techniques and attitudes to manage their stress and build their resilience. If you need some help and advice on how to employ these techniques effectively, our life coaches at ZentasticFit would love to help.
Without going into detail about the physiology of the stress response (you’re welcome), stress takes a toll on our bodies, both physically and mentally. The effects can be devastating, making resilience (a.k.a., stress management) such a valuable trait—or, better said, a valuable practice, because it’s something that we can choose to develop. All of the techniques discussed in this article are, therefore, physical and/or mental practices that address the physical and/or mental causes (or consequences) of stress.
By addressing the causes and consequences of stress, these practices build resilience and help us better respond to stress in both body and mind. Some do so by helping us calm down in the midst of a stressful situation; some train our bodies to react to stress in a healthier way (i.e., a less intense stress response); some are able to reverse some of the negative effects of stress; most do all of the above. Again, if you need some advice on how to effectively deveop and use these techniques, a life or wellness coach can be of great help.
These resilience practices are not listed in order of importance. I think it would be too hard to say which ones are the best, because that could vary considerably from person to person. So my suggestion is to at least try each of them. If one doesn’t work well for you, don’t worry about it; spend your time on the ones that do work.
1. Shift Your Attitude.
When it comes to stress management, the power of perspective cannot be ignored. Our minds seem to follow the same law of inertia that physical objects do: without intervention, they will keep doing what they’re doing. That means that, without conscious effort to stop the cycle of negative, anxious, or stressful thinking, our minds will continue to think those negative, anxious, or stressful thoughts. I call this the negativity spiral.
But there’s good news: the opposite is true, too. Positivity begets more positivity, leading to a positivity spiral. This makes positive thinking a powerful tool for stopping stress and negativity. And for promoting resilience and keeping a positive attitude in the midst of adversity. Personal life coaches can work with you to help you shift your attitudes and think more positively.
Next time you’re feeling stressed, shift your focus from your stress to something positive. It could be trying to find the silver lining in your current situation, looking for something to be grateful for in the moment. It could be taking a minute or two and closing your eyes as you imagine your happy place, allowing yourself to be flooded with all the positive sensations and/or memories of that place. Or it could be rewriting the narrative of a stressful or unpleasant event, looking back on it and finding the good that came from it (e.g., it made you realize just how strong you are; it brought you closer to a friend; it taught you a valuable life lesson).
2. Practice Mindfulness.
I could easily write whole posts on the topic of mindfulness (and likely will, so stay tuned for that), because there is so much research showing how it is a powerful tool for reducing stress and promoting physical and mental health. (Seriously, the benefits it can have on our bodies and minds is almost unbelievable.)
In theory, mindfulness is simple: it’s being aware. But simple doesn’t mean easy. Mindfulness is a directed, intentional awareness. Given how much our minds like to wander, this can make mindfulness tricky, because it can be hard to keep our attention on something. Thankfully, it doesn’t take much to start seeing the benefits, especially when it comes to stress management: if you can do just enough mindfulness to calm the stress response, that alone could do wonders. Plus, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, and the more you’ll be able to resiliently take in stride the challenges that life throws your way. So give it a go.
Mindfulness practices can come in various forms, so see which ones work best for you and focus on those. One of the most widely used forms is mindful breathing. This entails taking slow, controlled, deep breaths. To help keep focus, and to help keep the breathing slow, count out your breaths. A popular version is to count slowly to four on an inhale, count slowly to four as you hold that breath, count to four as you exhale, and count to four one last time as you hold again. You could also check out a yoga class. Yoga is primarily a breathing practice, so it will be a great way for you to learn to mindfully focus on your breath and body. Check out one of our yoga instructors to help you with this great mindfulness practice.
Another popular technique is body scanning: slowly taking your attention from one body part to another and releasing any observed tension or tightness. As you notice any tension, do what you can to release it (e.g., relax that body part;=, exhale to let the tension go tense up that body part and then relax it, etc.). You can also do something similar with your thoughts: noticing what thoughts you’re having, and then, without assigning value to those thoughts, letting them go. If it helps, visualize those thoughts as leaves floating away on a stream. It’s probably easier said than done, at least when you’re first starting, but it’s worth every bit of effort you can give.
3. Prioritize Your Health.
Stress is physical, so effective resilience entails a healthy physical response to stress. Just like a strong, well-designed bridge can withstand the stresses of heavy vehicles and winds, a healthy, well-taken-care-of body can withstand the various stresses of life. The three big things to focus on to help your body be more resilient to stress are exercise, diet, and sleep. If you're unsure of where to start, contact one of our personal trainers or nutrition coaches; they can help you understand how to healthily move and nourish your body.
Exercise is a form of stress, so when you exercise, you are physically training your body to better respond to stress. As much as you’re able to, aim for at least 30 minutes of activity three times a week. And it doesn’t have to be intense; even a brisk walk will be good for your body.
When it comes to nutrition, make sure you incorporate good amounts of produce in your diet, because that’s where most of the important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are. A good rule of thumb is that the more colorful the produce is, the better it is for you (think spinach, broccoli, berries, tomatoes, etc.). At the same time, keep an eye on the amount of saturated fat (meats, dairy products, etc.) you’re eating and, as much as possible, avoid trans fats, added sugars, and artificial/highly processed foods. Here’s another good rule of thumb: the more natural, the better.
For our bodies and minds to function well, we need a good seven to eight hours of sound sleep a night. If you get too much less than that for too long, you’ll likely start feeling it—and suffering the consequences. To help get more sound sleep, try to maintain a consistent sleep cycle and avoid alcohol and screen time for at least an hour before bed (or switch your screen to night mode).
4. Invest in Important Relationships.
Maintaining a strong, supportive social network is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. Period. (Check out this article for more on this topic.) Note the operative word: “supportive”. I’m not talking about the people on the periphery whom you only occasionally talk to on social media. I’m talking about your core group of important people—the ones with whom you feel comfortable being completely and freely yourself; the ones you can talk to when you’re having a bad day; the ones who will celebrate with you when you succeed, grieve with you when you’re mourning, and help you out when you’re struggling; the ones who know your less-than-ideal traits and still love you anyway.
These kinds of strong relationships have been shown, time and again, to be not just helpful for healthily dealing with and recovering from stress and trauma, but also for living a long, healthy, fulfilling life. So reach out to those people today, especially if you’re feeling stressed or need some encouragement. It’ll do you all some good.
If you're struggling to find, develop, or maintain these relationships, a relationship-focused life coach can help.
5. Be Kind.
Mistakes happen; it’s part of what makes us human. When it comes to managing stress and developing resilience, the trick is to be kind to yourself, understanding that mistakes are part of life and do not make you less valuable. (If anything, they make you more valuable because of the lessons they teach you.). The other trick is to not dwell on the mistake (that’ll lead to the negativity spiral).
It can sometimes be so much easier to show others grace when they make mistakes than it is to show ourselves grace when we’re the ones making the mistakes. But are we not as human as they are? Do we not deserve the same love that they do? If we wouldn’t be that hard on someone else, maybe we shouldn’t be that hard on ourselves. This self-compassion can be one of the hardest things you ever learn to do, but it could also be one of the most important things you ever learn to do. After all, if you can learn to let go of the mistake and see it instead as a learning opportunity, you’ll be much stronger, smarter, and more resilient for having made it.
6. Pursue Purpose.
When you know what you’re working towards, it can be a lot easier to push through the challenge along the way. This applies to goals as well as to being resilient in the face of adversity.
Like with the first point about perspective, pursuing purpose works because it gives us something to focus on other than what’s causing us stress, difficulty, etc. But more than taking our minds off the negative, it gives us something to look forward to, something good to pursue. It gives us a reason to push, to work hard. It gives us a reason to be resilient.
And sometimes that reason is all we need. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, the distant star that guides our way through the darkness, the hope we hold on to, even as all else seems to crumble. So when the going gets tough, focus on your purpose. And then find purpose in the struggle, trusting that it’s strengthening you for the rest of the journey. If you don’t yet know your purpose, keep looking (and maybe work with a life coach), because you do have one. I promise. We all do. And in the meantime, focus on some of your goals instead, or pursue an adopted purpose, something that may not be your calling, but is still an important, purposeful endeavor (e.g., serving at a food kitchen, volunteering at church, helping keep a local park clean, etc.).
Yes, life is hard, stress is inevitable, and adversity happens. But resilience can happen, too—though probably not unless you make it happen. The key to making resilience happen is in the mind: choosing to engage in behaviors that foster resilience, even when it’s hard and you don’t want to. But that’s when you most need to. And that’s when it’ll be most worth it.
If you're finding it hard to motivate yourself to make these changes, consider working with a trainer or coach for added accountability. Or if you need more advice on various fitness, nutrition, or wellness tips, our trainers, yoga and dance instructors, and nutrition and wellness coaches would love to help. Or if you need help finding your purpose or practicing mindfulness, check out our life coaches and start your journey towards a more resilient life today.
“Five Science-Backed Strategies to Build Resilience” by Kira M. Newman (Greater Good Magazine)
“Building Your Resilience” (American Psychological Association)
“Resilience” (Psychology Today)
Or, for an educational video, check out Raphael Rose’s TED talk on resilience
About the author
Dustin R. Meriwether, Ph.D., has a doctorate in cognitive psychology from the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities and is a certified group fitness instructor through AFAA