Building resilience to better manage stress

Stress affects all of us in different ways. What might cause stress in one person may not necessarily impact someone else in the same way.

Building resilience to better manage stress

We all have different ways of managing and coping with stress. Some of us are better at it than others, and that's no slight on anyone who is struggling to manage their own stresses - it's all about the context of what we're experiencing and how emotionally equipped we are to manage it.

One way that we can develop our capacity to handle stress is through emotional resilience. It's all about our ability to function when the shit hits the fan, when we're faced with all manner of obstacles, failures, and setbacks.

Fortunately, resilience is a skill. Like all skills, it's something that we can develop and improve over time. Some of us have more resilience than others not because we're just naturally better at handling things, but because we've had to handle things in the past, and we've used those experiences to learn how to better adapt to what might be thrown at us in the future.

That's the key to resilience. Adaptability. It's about our perspective of a situation and how we view ourselves within that situation. It's about viewing whatever obstacle it is and, instead of stopping in front of it, employing our natural problem solving nature to work a way around it.

Here are some things to help you think about ways to improve your own resilience.

Recognise what you can control

The answer to this is simpler than you might think. There's only one thing that you actually have any real control over, and that's yourself. We can fret and worry about what the outcome of our efforts are going to be, but ultimately that's a waste of our energy. What we should be worrying about is not the outcome, but the effort itself.

If we tend to the present and focus our energy on affecting change or achieving a result, then we reduce the mental load of worrying about the result and can better focus on getting to where we want to be.

Look after yourself

Everyone says this and, guess what? They're right. One thing that I've noticed a lot when people are dealing with a stressful situation is that they aren't taking any time to look after their own wellbeing. That includes exercising regularly, a good night's sleep, and making sure that we're eating well. To coin a phrase from the comedian George Carlin (one of my personal favourites)

Garbage in, garbage out.

If we're stuffing our face with sugary snacks, processed food and take away meals, and caffeine to keep us going, we're not doing ourselves any favours. A nutritional diet not only does wonders for the body, but it can give us the mental energy we need to tackle the challenges that we're facing.

Quality sleep is also extremely important. It's no good consistently burning the midnight oil because you've got deadlines or expectations to meet. That sort of use of time is a false economy. Getting better sleep and a good routine of rest means we've got more energy and better focus, so you'll likely find that you can get the same amount of work done to a higher quality in less time. Plus you'll feel mentally better in the long run and better equipped to handle those challenges that come along.

Reframe your perspective

How important, in real terms, is the thing that's causing us stress? When we're caught up in the moment, it can be easy to feel like the obstacle or challenge that we're facing has become our world. If we zoom out, however, and take a broader perspective, we often find that what we're worrying about isn't as all encompassing as it first appeared. 

Take a step into the future, for example, and imagine how that challenge is going to feel in a week's time, or next month. Will it still have the same gravity as it does now?

Don't procrastinate

The common misconception is that procrastination is a sign of laziness or apathy. It's not. It's actually an emotional response to something that we don't want to face. We create obstacles and excuses for ourselves to not tend to those things we fear facing or that might cause us stress.

Existing in a state of inaction (and I speak from experience here) only serves to amplify the stress and anxiety we feel about something in the long run. My advice here is to give ourselves a gentle nudge and to take action to resolve the challenge or obstacle as soon as we can. Not only does it empower us, because by taking action we can apply our agency, but it lessens that imagined stress that we create within ourselves.

As the stoic philosopher Seneca said

We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

Ask for help

Being open, honest, and authentic when we are struggling, and communicating those issues to others, can seem challenging. We might view our inability to cope as a sign of weakness, or feel like we don't want to burden others with our problems.

We must remember, however, that connection with others is an important part of our wellbeing. We're tribal animals by nature, and should be careful not to neglect the social needs that are inherently part of who we are. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the support and help that others can give you when they know that you're having a tough time.