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Jun 26, 2019

8 Simple Steps to Build Up Your Stress Resilience

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

Let’s face it: we all get stressed, because life is stressful. We cannot avoid stress, BUT (great news!) we can learn how to build our resilience to stress. Stress can actually be good for us, depending on our perceptions! We actually cannot function without stress—it is a natural part of being human, and can help get our brains and bodies ready for action in tough situations.

I cannot “stress” this enough: how we perceive stress affects how we react, physically and mentally, to stress. Good reactions to stress positively affect us and help us cope when life is challenging, while toxic reactions to stress negatively impact our overall wellbeing by decreasing our resilience to stressful situations.  

So, how can you develop a healthy resilience to stress?

1. Embrace stress:

Whenever you feel strained, see stress as something that enhances, rather than diminishes, your performance. Worrying about stress can put your body into toxic stress, constricting the blood vessels around your heat and throwing all your neuropsychological reactions into chaos, which can severely impact your mental and physical health. Seeing stress in a positive light, on the other hand, can dramatically change the way your brain and body reacts to a challenging situation. It dilates the blood vessels around your heart, pumping blood and oxygen into your brain and releasing neurotransmitters, which work together to help you focus and think with clarity to react in the best way, as I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed.  

A good reaction to stress is actually like a vaccine or flu shot: you are building resilience to the stress response because your brain and body builds a biological memory of your response (it actually remembers how you react to stress!). The more you do this, the more you are training your body to work for you when times get tough. This is why it is so important to embrace challenges and build up your immunity to stressful, toxic situations. Don’t run away from stress! The more you practice reacting to stressful situations in a good way, the more you are strengthening those healthy, biological memories and building up your mental immunity.  

So, if you find yourself panicking, don’t give up! Practice deep breathing. In the moment, try reconceptualize the negative, stressful thoughts you are experiencing: choose to see this situation or experience differently, and give yourself a new way of understanding it. For example, tell yourself how good stress can be for you! Think of all the positive benefits (mentioned above) that good stress can have on your body. Tell yourself that you will have more clarity for thought and wisdom if you make stress work for you. As you start looking at this situation or experience differently (such as a horrible boss at work or a fight with a loved one), all the chemicals, hormones and so on start flowing differently, and actually change the physical structure of your reaction. And, the next time you are in that situation, you will be better able to handle it because you have been building up your mental resilience and immunity. 

But remember, this takes time! It takes roughly 63 days to establish new neural pathways in the brain, so don’t worry if you don’t feel more in control immediately. Remember, you are building up resilience to stressful situations, which takes some time and effort. Eventually, the situation will no longer control you—you will control the situation! Indeed, you will literally become inoculated against these kind of situations! As I mentioned above, as you embrace stress more and more you will build it as a habit into your brain, so next time you feel stressed it will be your dominant thinking pattern. The more you practice reacting to stress in a healthy way, the more “natural” it will feel. 

My new app Switch is a great tool for helping you through this process. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your toxic stress, and help you build a healthy new thinking habit over 63 days. You can also find out more on toxic thinking and how to change negative reactions to stress in my book Switch On Your Brain

2. Do a mental autopsy:

Another important part of building resilience to stress is what I call a “mental autopsy”. This requires looking back (like a regular autopsy) at your stressful experiences, analyzing them, and examining why something went the way it did and how you can improve, whether this is some kind of trauma, a fight, something at work, and so on. 

The key to a good “mental autopsy” is understanding. When you start to understand your experiences, you can reconceptualize them (or redesign them, as I mentioned above) and learn from them, which helps you stop reacting to stress in a negative way and making the same mistakes over and over again (as I spoke about in a recent blog and podcast). A mental autopsy essentially helps you move forward and learn from the past. 

So, how do you do this? When the stressful experience has ended, start asking, answering and discussing with yourself why it happened, how do it happen, how did I react, what were my triggers and so on, which will help you gain insight into the issue and see how it can be avoided in the future, and how you can improve the way you react the next time something similar happens. Indeed, as you do a mental “autopsy”, you are literally creating a gene that will hold a protein memory which will get stronger and stronger the more you practice it; you will get better and better at improving your reactions over time.

3. Manage your expectations:

It is so important that we analyze and manage our expectations on a daily basis. It is unrealistic to think that life will be a bed of roses. It is equally unrealistic, however, to think that everything is always going to be gloomy. As a matter of fact, these expectations change our brains and impact our bodies, so we really have to be careful what we choose to think about and dwell on! When we learn to expect good things, good things actually start to happen, such as better mental and physical performance. Yet the opposite is also true; thinking bad things are going to happen often allows bad things to happen!  

We need to be realistic, of course, but we also need to have what I call a “possibilities mindset”. In my book Think, Learn, Succeed I discuss how I talk about how important it is to see that when one door closes, another one can open. Only seeing option A or B is myopic and causes unnecessary stress, which can, in turn, cause us to miss out on other great opportunities. If we just assume that we have failed because things have not gone our way, we can block ourselves from moving forward, which can upset our mental wellbeing because our brain gets stuck in a negative, stressful reaction. However, when we learn to think that there is more than just plan A or plan B, we tap into the optimism bias of the brain, helping us get up when we fail because we learn to see all the potential opportunities in any given situation, and we don't get stressed out when our plan doesn't go, well, as planned. We begin to recognize that all “failures” are knowledge gained! Being prepared to change them in this way, especially when our circumstances change, helps develop mental flexibility, resilience, creativity and imagination, which gives us hope because we just keep on trying till we achieve our goals!

4. Have a support system in place:

Each time you feel yourself teetering on the brink of toxic stress, speak with your friends or family (even if it is just a phone call or text conversation!) to help you get perspective and deal with your anxiety in a positive way. Finding life difficult at times is not something to be ashamed of, while suppressing your emotions will throw your brain and body into toxic stress, which can severely impact your mental and physical health. This is why it is so important to develop a habit of reaching out when times get tough, which helps strength our immunity to stress in the brain by activating positive genetic switches in the brain. Remember, the key to dealing with stress is not in pretending you are always okay; rather, resilience to stress comes from being proactive in seeking help, and helping others. 

5. Take responsibility:

It is so important that we avoid a victim mentality, which can keep us stuck in toxic stress reactions and decrease our resilience to stressful situations. When take responsibility for our choices and life, we can feel more in control, and recognize that although we cannot control other people’s thoughts or reactions, we can control our own thoughts and actions. 

6. Take care of your body: 

As I discuss in my book and online program Think and Eat Yourself Smart, your mind works through your brain and body, and your physical health impacts your mind. A healthy body is a very important if you want a healthy mind, and a healthy mind is very important if you want a healthy body. This is especially true when it comes to stress: your body is better able to withstand the physical stress response if it is supported by a healthy lifestyle, which includes good eating, sleeping and exercise habits. This makes us more resilient to the negative side-effects of stress, and helps us use the stress response to our advantage. 

7. Use your imagination:

When you feel stressed out, stop and try visualize yourself wearing a protective shield of armor. See this in your mind’s eye,protecting you from the toxic stress “arrows”. This generates positive energy which almost acts like a shield, which can help you divorce your own emotions from the situation and give your mind a break from the stress by reminding yourself that you are strong and that you protected from the negative side-effects of stress. This is an integral part of building up your resilience to the toxic effects of stress! 

8. Take mental health breaks throughout the day:

If you are always in a high stress environment, it is important to learn to build in moments where you can completely relax and unwind, and where you don’t feel guilty about relaxing! This can include running a bubble bath, going for a walk or to an exercise class, grabbing a coffee with a friend, go on a date night, daydream, treat the weekend like a vacation, have a spa day, or treating yourself to a much-needed holiday now and then—whatever you love to do. When we go into a directed rest state (that is when we are intentional about relaxing!), we enhance and increase the effectiveness of our thinking, which allows us to be more productive, creative and less stressed when we are working. This will reduce our anxiety levels by helping us get things done in less time and achieve what we want to achieve in life. If you want to learn why it is so important to relax, why you should treat your weekend like a vacation and how to deal with a stressful Monday, listen to a recent podcast I did on why we hate Mondays and how to prepare for a busy and stressful week.

If you would like to learn more about how to improve your mental health and deal with stress, join me at my Mental Health Solutions Summit this December in Dallas, TX December 6-7, 2019! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click here (PRICES INCREASE JULY 16!

If you have found my research and work helpful in your life and would like to help others who may be struggling with mental health issues, please consider donating to my research project fundraiser at drleafresearch.com. 100% of proceeds go directly to research on how to make mental health care more easily affordable, accessible, and applicable to everyone around the world! 

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