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Stress Resilience: It's a Real Thing and You Can Develop It

What's more, it's simpler than you think.

Key points

  • Most of the ways we've learned to deal with stress (like trying to talk our way out of it) don't actually work.
  • Stress resilience can help you bounce back quicker from anxiety-provoking events.
  • Techniques that build stress resilience include deep breathing and walking in nature.

Stress resilience is your natural inborn ability to bounce back from the anxiety response that is an inevitable part of life (especially these days). Stress resilience is, in fact, as natural as the stress response.

Yet while we have all learned about the fight-or-flight response (the sympathetic nervous system activation), where our bodies prepare to either fight off a potentially deadly attack, or to run away from the threat, most of us have not learned what happens after the threat has passed and our bodies (ideally) return back to its normal state. Nor have we learned how to return to that state of calm and restoration (the parasympathetic nervous system activation) more quickly and often.

So, let’s take a look.

How the stress response works in the wild

Consider the classic example of a lion chasing an antelope in the wild, with the antelope in flight mode—sympathetic nervous system fully activated and adrenalin pumping. If the lion catches her, then her life ends right there. But if she escapes, once out of harm’s way, the antelope’s stress is over almost immediately. The parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for “resting and digesting” will kick in and she will peacefully relax and return to grazing in the sun. The “fight or flight” state has placed tremendous demand on her physiology but as soon as it is deactivated she can focus on recovering and regaining her full strength. Within minutes, therefore, her nervous system has calmed down to allow her to regain an optimal state in which she can recover.

So why can’t we be like that antelope?

The human stress response

We're thinkers, planners, and worriers. Unlike most animals, we have an especially well-developed “neocortex” which gives us the capacity to have a mind. Thank goodness for our neocortex—it is a beautiful gift that allows us to have insight, to develop language, to read this book, and to communicate thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Unfortunately, it also gives us the ability to worry, despair, perseverate (psychology lingo for "rehash the same thing over and over again”), imagine the worst, dramatize, and create fictitious scenarios and totally wild interpretations. It's one of the reasons many of us live in a constant state of stress or fear.

If the antelope were graced with a neocortex like ours, she might not go back to chilling out quite so fast after the stressful episode with the lion. Instead, she would replay the scenario in her mind over and over again, worry and plan how to escape in case the lion returns, develop insomnia obsessing over the idea that the lion could return and potentially harm her baby, and so on — sound familiar?

Why it's so hard for us to reduce stress

Unfortunately, studies have shown that many of the things people do to reduce stress and build resilience are actually ineffective, or worse, counterproductive.

First, you can’t talk yourself out of stress. Try to talk yourself into sleeping when you are anxious the night before a big interview or exam or performance. Better yet, think about how helpful it is when a friend or manager tells you to “just relax” before you have to deal with a difficult client. That’s not only unhelpful, it’s often downright irritating. After all, “never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down.”

Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard University, has shown in several studies that the intention to control a particular thought often breaks down under stress or mental overload and actually ends up triggering the unwanted thought, undermining our best intentions.

Wegner describes this as an “ironic process.” When we attempt to resist a certain thought or action—trying not to eat junk food when on a diet, or trying not to think of someone who we just broke up with—our efforts can easily backfire under stress.

You also can't just “tough it out.” Research by Stanford Psychologist James Gross demonstrates that suppressing our emotions (e.g., by not showing the emotion on our face) actually leads to the opposite of what we want. By attempting to hide the emotions, we actually experience them more strongly physiologically.

For example, anger or stress makes your heart rate increase and your palms sweat. Suppressing these emotions actually will increase their physiological impact. In fact, it even impacts the physiology of whoever you are talking with by raising their heart level! Suppressing negative emotions on a regular basis actually makes people experience more negative emotions and less positive emotions in general.

In sum, instead of accessing our resilience, we routinely try to manage this stress in ways that are not only ineffective, but that might make us even more anxious and depleted.

Is there a better way? Yes. The answer lies in our bodies.

Techniques to build stress resilience

If you can bring greater relaxation and ease into your body, your mind will naturally be at its best and have the chance to restore from the stress.

My favorite way to do this is by doing conscious, deep breathing. I have conducted research and written a lot on this topic (see here for example and my book). I highly recommend breathing exercises as a daily routine.

There are other additional ways to balance your nervous system too so it can restore, rebuild its resources and — best of all — help you regain a happier and more positive state of mind. Each one of us has favorite activities that we know help to calm our mind: swimming or yoga, walks with our dog in nature, unplugging from our phone and taking a bath, or cuddling and playing with our child. Whatever activities slow down our thoughts bring us back into the here and now, and bring ease into our body and consciousness.

For example, simply going for a walk outside can help build resilience. Studies have shown that a simple walk in nature (as opposed to an urban environment), can significantly decrease anxiety, preserve positive mood, and even improve our memory. Moreover, nature can inspire an experience of awe at the view of a landscape. Research on awe, which is often inspired by beautiful natural sceneries such as a starlit sky or a vast horizon, suggests that it slows our perception of time (which is the opposite of what happens with stress) by bringing us into the present moment and thereby enhances our well-being and decreases our stress.

Whether you opt for breathing classes or other soothing activities, these practices all build upon themselves. Just like going to the gym, it takes repetition and daily commitment to start to see a shift in your nervous system. The key is that activities that build resilience are focused on supporting the body and its natural ability to come back from stress, rather than attempting to banish or suppress stress when it arises. By tapping into your natural resilience through activities like breathing exercises that activate the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system, you can learn to reduce stress… even right now.

More from Emma Seppälä Ph.D.
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