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Habits that build resilience and manage stress

Health reporter Catherine Milford asks mental health experts for practical ways to bounce back faster from life’s curveballs.

Life can be stressful at times. A manager at work makes your job a misery, the kids are playing up, you’ve suffered an illness or injury that affects how you operate, there’s way more month than money… we all know that feeling of fighting an uphill battle.

Without fail, every one of us experiences changes and hiccups that can knock us off-kilter during our lifetime. While some people seem to glide through stress like a swan on a pond, many of us struggle to the point our health and mental wellbeing can take a significant knock. But there’s good news for those who are struggling: it is possible to build resilience to stressful situations.

What is resilience

According to occupational therapist and mental health and addictions expert Lindsay Coup, resilience is ‘the ability to adapt and absorb life’s challenges and changes, to carry on and persevere in the face of adversity’. Being resilient can help our performance at work and with our relationships. From childhood, we are exposed to stressors that can vary in severity depending on several factors, including genetic, social, psychological and environmental influences and, as we grow and develop, we learn how to manage these stressors – sometimes positively, sometimes not so much.

“There are two ways of coping with stress – adaptive, which are positive strategies to manage stressful situations and build resilience; and maladaptive, which are habits we take on that don’t allow us to adapt to a situation, and can often compound the problem,” Ms Coup explains. “Resilience to stress can be built by, first, understanding what our coping strategies are and implementing them in a way that builds our strength to cope with stress.”

Learn your triggers

Unfortunately, there is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy, as no two people are exactly alike. “It’s important to remember that everyone’s different, and what causes stress for one person won’t bother someone else,” explains clinical psychologist Chantal Hofstee. “I call it the ‘green brain’ and ‘red brain’ states. Green brain is when you feel in control and calm; red brain is when you’ve reacted to a stress trigger. Building resilience to a red brain state starts with understanding what your triggers are and learning to pay attention to them.”

Coping strategies

While everyone is different, some coping strategies work for most people. Implementing some, or all, of these changes into your routine can make a big difference to your stress levels and resilience.

1. Foster optimism
Solution-focused thinking, and a belief that things will work out in the end, can go a long way to helping you through tough times, whether at work or in your personal life. Research on disaster victims revealed an optimistic outlook has beneficial effects on overall wellbeing. A number of studies have shown that visualising ‘your best possible self’ can boost anyone’s optimism. So, if you don’t feel naturally optimistic, try examining your negative beliefs and thinking about possibilities where things could go right instead, and spend some time each day dreaming about a future where everything has gone as right as it can. What would it look like? Try to be as detailed as possible.

2. Don’t rush
A lack of time, especially in the morning, is hugely stressful. “It’s very difficult to come back from a ‘red brain’ morning and start afresh,” Dr Hofstee says. “Pack your bag the day before, prepare your lunch and get up 10 minutes earlier. These simple changes can transform your morning from difficult and overwhelming, to calm and happy.”
Find out what you enjoy doing and do it

3. Whether it’s taking a minute
over morning coffee, cuddling the cat, listening to music, going for a run or fitting in a yoga session, find out what triggers your sense of calm and make time for it. Physical activity is a great way to regulate stress and feeling physically strong can translate to feeling mentally robust too, so find exercise you enjoy and aim to do it three to four times a week.

4. Give everything a home
major source of stress is being in a rush and realising you can’t find your keys/phone/glasses. Create a place for everything you need on a daily basis. Put a box by the door for keys and keep your phone somewhere you know you’ll find it. Putting everything in one place the night before can remove massive amounts of stress in the morning.

5. Get some fresh air
Nature is a universal de-stressor. Going for a walk after a stressful meeting, or after a rejection or disappointment, can help us digest the situation, often helping us to react to it better. Going for a walk along the beach, or even simply standing outside for a few minutes, is a good way of allowing yourself to assess the situation more positively.

6. Choose helpful foods
When it comes to feeling resilient and able to take the day on, what we eat can matter. “When we’re stressed, our body becomes fatigued, and we turn to high-energy foods such as sugars and refined carbohydrates to pick ourselves up,” explains nutrition coach Michelle Yandle. “Fizzy drinks, coffee and energy drinks won’t do anything for your energy or your stress levels long-term.” Choose nutrient-dense foods to help your body perform at its best. A plant-based diet, including plenty of antioxidant-rich green vegetables and fruit, omega-3 from oily fish, B12 from animal products and choline from eggs, can all help your body and brain operate optimally, giving you a better foundation from which to operate your life.

7. Get some sleep
Adequate sleep is vital to mental processes. To optimise sleep patterns, practise good sleep hygiene, which includes going to bed and getting up at around the same times every day; staying away from screens or stimulating tasks for at least 30-40 minutes before bed; sleeping in a cool room (16°-18°C); avoiding caffeine, alcohol or cigarettes before bed; and exercising regularly, but not just before bed. Allowing your body to wind down before bed gives it a chance to increase the sleep hormone melatonin.

8. Talk it out
There’s plenty of truth in the saying ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. Talk to someone you trust, such as a family member, friend or health professional, about challenges you’re facing.

9. Take a breather
Deep breathing slows down the autonomic nervous system that controls our unconscious bodily functions. Often, we wait until the end of the day to relax, but why wait? Aim to have a ‘reset’ moment a few times during the day. Remind yourself by putting a note on your computer, writing a B on your hand or having a card in your wallet. Apps such as Calm and Headspace have breathing techniques that can help.

10. Step away from stressors
Whether it’s constantly checking your phone, reading the newspaper or getting embroiled in a conversation you know is going to raise a red flag, learning to strategically limit your own stress triggers is crucial. If you know watching the news will upset you, don’t do it. And it’s okay to let the call from your mum or neighbour go to voicemail sometimes!

Stress in itself isn’t the enemy; it’s how we handle it that causes problems. When we get stressed, we get a rush of hormones in our system, including adrenaline, and the liver is told to produce more glucose so we have the energy to get away from a dangerous situation – the ‘fight or flight’ response. But this helpful reaction can cause health issues if stress becomes chronic.

Signs of chronic stress include:

  • not sleeping well
  • regularly feeling on edge
  • an inability to concentrate, or memory lapses
  • emotional eating patterns – eating too much or too little
  • irritation and/or frustration that affects relationships
  • a change in ability to handle common tasks such as cooking dinner
  • feeling unmotivated
  • making excuses not to see others, isolating yourself.

If you’re suffering long-term stress, it’s important to develop positive coping strategies. Visit your health professional or mentalhealth.org.nz for more information.

Date modified: May 12 2021
First published: Jul 2018

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