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Understanding Your Stressors and Building Resilience

Understanding what stresses you out and how to meet your needs.

Key points

  • Understand what demands you are facing by comparing them to your needs.
  • Determine what resources you have and if you are utilizing them.
  • You cannot build resilience if you are currently in stress-mode.

One of my resolutions for 2021 is to help build my resilience in order to have improved mental health. In trying to make sense of this lofty goal, I did what any good researcher does—I went to the literature. Four themes emerged:

  • Understand what demands you are facing.
  • Determine what resources you have.
  • Identify the needs that help you thrive.
  • Specific tips on how to improve these areas.

How to Build Resilience

Let's look at this in the context of the workplace. First, to understand what demands you're facing, look at what helps you thrive. Luckily, there is much research that discusses the underlying needs that help people thrive. Those are:

  1. the need to feel competent
  2. the need for close relationships
  3. the need to be able to act with a sense of volition (that is, to have a say in things)

The times when those needs aren't being met are likely the source of demands or stress. For instance, if you have tight deadlines, competing priorities, or are being asked to do things outside of your comfort zone, that's likely going to challenge your sense of competence. If you can't call upon colleagues, your boss is absent, or you don't have someone to vent to, you are going to feel isolated and alone and thus may not meet your relationship needs. If you lose control of your calendar, aren't being listened to, or are being micro-managed you don't have a sense of volition.

Understanding your sources of stress can help you understand if you are tapping into the right resources. That is, what can help you meet your needs? Do you feel your job uses your strengths? Is there good communication with your boss? Do you know what you are supposed to be working on? Do you have colleagues you can lean upon? Are you in the right meetings to feel like you can have a say in projects? Are you able to set your hours, block your calendar, or say what you work on when? Determining the positive aspects of your role or the potential resources you can tap into can help you understand how to address stressors and create an action plan.

Make an action plan to ensure all your needs are being met. If you are in a job that is monotonous or doesn't allow you to have a lot of say in what you do, find smaller victories. Take your breaks earlier or later, depending on your energy. Look for insights into how your tasks connect to the financials or quality of the product. Have meetings with your supervisor or HR to express any concerns or suggest improvements. If you are in a dysfunctional work environment and you can't find resources to help you meet these needs, find them outside of work through hobbies, learning, and relationships.

Why You Should Focus on Reducing Stress First

Only once we are out of stress can we try to build resilience. You cannot build resilience while in stress. The best way to think about this is similar to physical training. You cannot get a personal best while you have a torn ACL. You need to heal before you can improve—and healing might mean just getting by for a few weeks.

When you get to resilience training, like physical training, you occasionally want to push yourself. You do not want to push so hard that you (mentally) injure yourself, but you want to push to get a sense of where your limit is. Then, have scheduled recovery time or an "off day." Also like physical training, our peak performance will only come alongside a routine, healthy diet, and proper sleep. Without these, your tolerance for stress becomes weaker and it can challenge your needs sooner.

Finally, like cross-training, building transferable habits can help build resilience. That is, finding ways to improve complementary skills can help buffer when demands arise. Some specific transferable habits to focus on (which also mirror the needs) are problem-solving skills, communication skills, and ways to build confidence and self-esteem.


McKinsey, 2021

Miller, 2021

Voudrais et al., 2011

Deci & Ryan, 2000

van den Broeck et al., 2008