Stress, Resilience And Recovery - Getting The Balance Right
How can you build resilience?
Resilience is often linked to positive thinking, practising gratitude, and powering through. But it’s much more than that. It encompasses concepts such as learning to adapt, as well as rest and recovery. At its core, it’s about being able to cope and handle stress better.
How Does Stress Affect the Brain?
Stress manifests in various ways. It can show up somatically (e.g. tense muscles, headache, body pains), affecting physical health. It could also impact thoughts and feelings, leading to emotional, mental or behavioural problems. Stress may even affect your social wellbeing.
What most people don't know, however, is how stress can alter the brain structurally and functionally. What's referred to here is not stress in traumatic events — it's the lesser, everyday stresses that take a toll on your brain.
Consistent exposure to stress affect the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for sensing and responding to stress. Furthermore, if the amygdala is sufficiently activated, it releases chemicals that hijack the frontal lobe of the brain. These chemicals adversely affect memory and emotional expression, among others.
Constant exposure to stress also shrinks the anterior cingulate cortex. This part of the brain plays a significant role in affecting emotional empathy, and impulse control, to name a just a couple of things..
Damage or even changes in these brain parts affect cognitive functions, including rational thinking and emotional response. The constant bombardment of stress on the brain and too little recovery causes the brain to become maladaptive. Thus, it is vital that we learn how to build resilience.
Nature and Nurture: Key Factors to Build Resilience
Resilience and responsiveness to stress is based on a range of factors. While your innate genetics can influence adrenal and stress hormones, you should also consider the following:
The quality of your environment
Amount of input you're receiving
Social support you got as a child
The support system you have as an adult
Level of arousal
These factors vary from person to person; resilience differs on a case-to-case basis.
Training the Brain to Build Resilience
Regardless of genetics, you can train your brain to handle stress effectively. In episode 190 of the Pushing the Limits podcast, Lisa and Paul Taylor discuss how to train yourself to build better resilience strategies into your life and how to develop more mental strength. They talk about how you can cope with traumatic events but also minor day-to-day stressors.
Here are some adaptive strategies you can apply in both the short and long term to change your physiology, build resilience and handle stressful situations better:
Discharge stress by releasing energy. You can do intense exercises or simple light movements such as stretching. Discharge also comes in the form of emotional release — even crying can be healthy.
Controlling your breath is also another quick and vital technique to discharge stress. Among its many benefits, slow, nasal, breathing allows you to activate your parasympathetic system. This part of the brain calms and slows down the heart rate.
Here are some suggested breathing exercises:
Breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to four. Hold for the same amount of time, then release over another slow four counts.
Resonant Frequency Breathing
The goal is to breathe four and a half to seven breaths a minute. Breathe in for four slow counts, then out for six. The parasympathetic system is specifically activated when breathing out. To relieve stress, it helps to breathe out longer. For other breathing tips and techniques on breathing, check out episode 180 of Pushing the Limits podcast with James Nestor.
The Physiological Sigh. This is a great, real time tool that instantly activates the parasympathetic system. All you need to do is do a double quick intake of air (through the nose if possible but if not through the mouth is fine for this exercise) then exhale long and vigorously squeezing your diaphragm. Do this 2 to 3 times and feel the instant calm it brings. When the diaphragm is squeezes it actually makes the heart slightly smaller and this increases the pressure of the blood going through it which sends signals to the brain to slow the heart rate and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Stress, as well as other negative emotions such as anxiety are primarily internal experiences. When actively experiencing these emotions, focus on something external rather than suppress or get rid of them. It could be something as simple as your breath. Perhaps focussing on finding the colour yellow in your environment, its all about quickly shifting your focus and using your pre frontal cortex to engage logical thinking and stop the amygdala from taking over. It’s a bit like distracting a naughty child instead of feeding it by giving it attention, distract your mind. Perhaps focus on the best version of yourself, have a character in your head that is the best version of you. One that depicts you when you are at your best. Calm, loving, empathetics, intelligent, logical etc, whatever traits you wish to develop and inhabit that character.
Morita therapy in Japanese psychology proposes that people have different stories of themselves. You can train your brain to focus on the story that highlights your strengths and positive qualities through repetition.
Focusing on the best story of yourself is a technique to trick yourself into thinking positively. Training your mind to do this makes negative thoughts and moods easier to spot. Once you notice negative thoughts, you can choose to dwell on them or direct your mind towards the positive. Viktor Frankl the famous Austrian Neurologist who survived the holocaust, says, ‘between stimulus and response is the space where you can choose’.
You can choose how you react to your circumstances, whether external or internal. At the same time, you can select your specific focus.
Essentially, paying attention to your best self and focusing on positive affirmations help you make better choices and create better outcomes.
Here are a few tips on how to reframe your thoughts and build resilience:
Note your ‘inner Gremlin’ and your ‘inner wise person’
Your inner Gremlin could be negative self-talk, anxiety, depression or any number of negative emotions. On the other hand, the wise you, is the optimal you — the calm under pressure.
When you’re stressed or faced with pressure, you can choose to focus on the “wise version of you (give this version of you a name and even draw the character).. This technique is called self-distancing. It takes you out of a stressful situation and focuses on your optimal self.
Set time for reflection
When facing stress, take time to ask yourself, ‘What can I do right now’? Even after a stressful situation, you can take time to reflect on moving forward with your best self in mind. This mental rehearsal helps you build more resilience.
Humans are comfort seekers by nature. However, the changes in the environment since the Industrial Revolution make it too easy to be comfortable, We don’t grow when we stay in our comfort zones and we don’t get stronger.
To grow, develop, get bigger, faster and stronger mentally and physically, you have to hang with tension long enough for adaptation to happen. Some level of challenge in life is vital for you to build resilience.
However we need to stress the importance of recovery. Recovery is not however drinking wine and watching Netflix (although there is a time for that type of relaxation too). Here we are talking about active recovery, doing something that energises you and rebuilds you. It balances out the stress. Without recovery, you are at risk of burnout.
You can achieve recovery through:
Reading a book
Connecting with others
Spending time in nature
Ice baths or cold exposure
To build resilience, you need to push yourself to adapt to change. However, recovery is equally important. Ultimately, the key to building resilience is striking a balance between adaptation and recovery.
For more insights on resiliency and handling stress, listen to episode 190 of the Pushing the Limits podcast.