How To Build Resilience and Manage Stress, According to a Neuroscientist
You don't have to sweat the small stuff.
Managing anxiety and ultimately transforming it for a different, better purpose comes down to resilience. Resilience is the ability to adapt and recover from hardship in our lives. We need resilience every day to help us through the daily challenges, disappointments, real or perceived insults, or any situation that might feel painful. It’s also one of the most important tools we have to draw from in the face of loss, sorrow, or trauma. Traumatic events call upon us to survive. They pull on every last ounce of our strength and emotional and physical resources.
In other words, we rely on resilience all the time. And just as we are wired for survival, we are also wired for resilience. As a scientist, I think of resilience as successful adaptation and the ability to effectively respond to the stressors in our lives. And the good news is that in spite of the inevitability of these stressors — both big and small — we can learn to build our resilience.
How We Build Resilience
We build resilience by learning how to think flexibly and accepting that we are not defined by our failures. Additionally, we build resilience by acknowledging what we need and knowing when to ask for help. We also build resilience when we seek out pleasure and sources of enjoyment, from food to sports to sex. Yes, having fun helps build our stores of resilience!
When we challenge ourselves and grow more confident, we build our resilience. When we figure out how to dial down our body’s stress response through relaxation techniques, we build our resilience. By eating right, getting enough sleep, and exercising, we boost our physical resilience, and in turn, support our psychological resilience. In essence, because our brain-bodies are wired to adapt, we can build resilience of brain, body, and mind. When confronted with setbacks, failure, or sadness, we can actively choose to find opportunities to optimize our stress response.
The true power of resilience is that it emanates from our own personal smorgasbord of both successes and failures as they gradually build over our entire lifetimes. Resilience also builds from leaning on our adaptive coping strategies, the ones we know and rely on to get us through those tough days and stressful situations when anxiety can hit. Actually, dear readers, with resilience, we have come full circle to one of the most powerful abilities that everyday anxiety affords us: the power to build our own personal and replenishable source of resilience in our lives. Anxiety helps build up our resilience stores. Anxiety also alerts us to the need for recovery and self-care. In neuroscience, we call it stress inoculation.
Developing Active Coping Strategies
Our first line of defense in managing any kind of stress is through coping strategies. These strategies offer us ways to measure our ability to manage stress. Whether these are adaptive (i.e., helpful) or maladaptive (harmful) says a lot about our resilience capacity. Some neurobiologists refer to our coping strategies in other ways, such as the contrasting active and passive coping responses. Active coping responses are “intentional efforts of the subject aimed at minimizing the physical, psychological, or social harm of a stressor” and imply an attempt to gain “control” over the stressor. Passive coping, which refers to avoidance or “learned helplessness,” occurs when a person avoids a stressful situation but also avoids building resilience to the stressor. In such cases, the individual becomes more vulnerable or susceptible to the impact of stress. They therefore are less resilient.
What the science of stress inoculation tells us is that we are all born with tools to get ourselves out of the stress/anxiety-provoking situation. Just to be clear, all anxiety-provoking situations will engage your stress response. However, the act of exercising those responses helps inoculate you from stress/anxiety responses in the future. It is as if you are teaching yourself that you CAN survive these situations and the better you get at first feeling that anxiety and then acting to mitigate the stress response, the better you will manage in the future.
In a sense, this gives you the opportunity to retrain your stress response with every anxiety-provoking situation you encounter as long as you are aware of your options and tools to flip that bad anxiety response to a good one.
Signs of Strength
Multiple studies have shown that we can actively build our resilience and sometimes even reverse deleterious effects of trauma on our stress system. Scientists continue to explore the negative impacts of prolonged stress. They are also looking at what is happening when people are able to avoid or resist the deleterious effects — essentially, what it takes for people to become more resilient in ways that protect the brain and overall health.
Indeed, in a review of the neuroscience of resilience studies, [clinical researcher] Gang Wu, PhD, and colleagues identified numerous characteristics that have been associated with people who show strong resilience. What’s particularly exciting is that most of these characteristics align with the anxiety superpowers.
An Optimistic Outlook
Often referred to as having a positive affect, it has been shown to reduce negative mood and anxiety. It also quickens recovery from traumatic events. Although I’m not suggesting you can generate an optimistic outlook out of thin air, it can be developed over time. Studies have shown how an optimistic attitude goes hand in hand with overall well-being, good physical health, and having a strong social network.
Cognitive Flexibility and Reappraisal
Two fundamental aspects of emotion regulation, they can also be learned, practiced, and ultimately used as a form of psychological resilience. Cognitive flexibility enables us to recruit our attention, refocus, and resist internalizing failures as indications of who we are. This cognitive nimbleness helps pivot your anxiety and becomes a form of psychological resilience.
This entails seeking out loving or caring relationships to help buffer the impact of stress. It is indeed a superpower of anxiety. The importance of our relationships, ability to empathize, and ultimately show compassion buffer against anxiety. This very buffer is a form of resilience.
It has been shown to be an active way to lessen anxiety and tension brought on by stress. It also helps people build both physical and psychological resilience.
It not only improves our overall health and brain-body functioning, but also acts as a source of physiological resilience, helping us manage stress both physically and psychologically.
What scientists refer to as “prosocial behavior,” it has been shown to promote recovery from trauma. I see this resilience booster as an extension of the superpower of compassion, which helps us fuel a stronger connection to our fellow human beings and goes a long way to offsetting anxiety and making us more emotionally resilient.
Mindfulness as a conscious practice, including meditation and yoga, and other mindful activities, has been shown to reduce passive or avoidant coping, such as reliance on alcohol, in response to stress. In this way, a mindfulness practice is like a prophylactic against anxiety and depression and in turn builds psychological resilience. Stress is not only an inevitable fact of our lives, but also something we are designed to deal with. In fact, stress is what forces us to adapt, learn, and evolve, both as individuals and a species.
The cliche is true: all of the most important life lessons come from the challenges we face and how we deal with them. The key point here is that resilience comes not only from the confidence and self-belief that we gain from the successes in our lives but perhaps more importantly from surviving, adjusting, and moving on after the inevitable failures and challenges. It takes both sides of this equation to build our superpower of resilience. We need to go through hard things in order to know we can survive them.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, How To Beat Stress: The Ultimate Guide To Feeling Happier, in 2022.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, Woman’s World.
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