Cultivating Resilience to Stress
For World Mental Health Day 2020, author of Accept How You Feel Dr Karen Gaye Graham explains why cultivating resilience to stress is our biggest – and most rewarding – challenge
by Dr Karen Gaye Graham
Stress is a familiar experience that involves having a sense of unease or distress in the mind-body. It can seem unavoidable due to financial and work-related problems, competing responsibilities, personal issues, and occasional crises to contend with. We also have to live in a faster-moving technological environment that we are meant to keep up with. Having a disturbed state of wellbeing reflects our concern about our ability to cope with something, or having frustration about it. And there seems to be a never-ending amount of change and uncertainty to challenge us.
Experiencing stress means that in our mind, something has become threatening in some way. The daily type of stress often involves thinking that we have too much to do and that there isn’t enough time to do it all. Or when something is outside of our control, we harbour doubts that we can deal with it, have thoughts that we shouldn’t have to deal with it, and perhaps put pressure on ourselves to somehow instantly fix it. Our mind can be filled with unhelpful or unanswerable questions about something: How? When? What if…? Should we just accept that being stressed is a normal part of life – especially because modern society seems so challenging, uncertain and time-pressured? Let’s look at some of the effects stress can have in our mind-body.
Mentally, we can be worried, preoccupied and have difficulty concentrating, be more forgetful, indecisive or self-critical. Emotionally, we can feel frustrated, moody and irritable, more overwhelmed or less happy. Physically, we can’t easily relax, might have tension headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, an upset tummy, feel exhausted or physically weak. When we are stressed, not only can’t we unwind and relax, there is also a hormonal response with consequences involving inflammation at a cellular level in the body. Does any of this sound like a natural, healthy state to be in? The good news is that since we can’t completely avoid disruptive issues during life, we must be already equipped to deal with it.
We are highly evolved beings who are always intrinsically adapting to changes in our environment, even if we are unaware that it is happening. As we progress through life we require constant stimulation and variety to develop higher functioning. This is reflected in acquiring more complex skills, new ways of thinking with increasing capacity to learn and assimilate knowledge, creativity, innovative problem-solving, greater insights and having expanded awareness.
“Relationships can improve. Work performance and productivity can improve. We can face bigger problems and future challenging issues with less negativity, and we can be more helpful”
However, any issue or change can be confronting, and often there is initial resistance to it. We face an unpredictable outcome or variation from what we already know and are comfortable with. If we experience stress then there is more persistent resistance about something, or to whatever is going on around us. We have negative thoughts and feelings about it. We are less psychologically flexible and can’t adapt to cope well. Stress could even be triggered by having unhelpful thoughts that are unrelated to anything external happening, yet still involves internal resistance.
Because stress and anxiety are so common today, this means that we aren’t giving enough attention to our personal reactions and instead, are too focused on the unwanted change, issue or problem. The real challenge then, is to raise our mental and emotional awareness, and in a way that is helpful. This is because having awareness about the way we think and feel might cause more negative reactions, worry and frustration. Higher self-awareness that also involves good management is needed.
When we prioritise managing what is in our direct control, which is what we think, and how we feel, this will reduce our stress. Then we can problem-solve better, think clearly about our options, discuss things rationally, and feel more capable moving forward. The door is open to having a more objective view about something, as well as being able to focus attention on what we can do, and appreciate doing our best. Whatever the challenging issue is, we will have more peace of mind, with more ability to make choices and decisions that are helpful at the time.
Experiencing stress is our sign to motivate us to look inward, and to manage our mental and emotional reactions. Cultivating this personal resilience will also benefit us in other ways. This conscious choice automatically invites higher self-awareness, so we can self-reflect to learn and understand more about ourselves. It becomes more possible to overcome old fears and judgements that are blocking our true potential. It becomes more possible to deal with and resolve difficult feelings as they arise. This is truly empowering.
Developing resilience to stress will bring more peace and harmony into our lives as we relate to what is happening to us. We learn how to respond better, rather than react to circumstances. Relationships can improve. Work performance and productivity can improve. We can face bigger problems and future challenging issues with less negativity, and we can be more helpful.
Becoming more resilient will also improve our self-esteem, because the process involves self-evaluation and comparison. We learn how to cope better with criticism, disappointment and failure. We can enjoy attention or approval, but won’t rely on it. We can still strive at things we’re not good at because we don’t give up. Our self-esteem won’t wildly fluctuate depending on circumstances or what mood we’re in.
Experiencing stress is a result of how we think and feel triggered by uncertainty and challenging issues. To function optimally requires managing our reactive thoughts and feelings, so then we can have more consciously generated, positive thoughts and feelings, decision-making and behaviours. And, on top of that, our physical body will be grateful.
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