Not all stress is bad. A little pressure can sometimes bring out the best in people. Think about when you have a deadline, and you’ve still got a lot to do. You’re under stress at that point, aren’t you? But you get your shit done, don’t you? (or at least, you give it a good shot).
That’s an example of how stress can improve performance. But, as you know, problems arise when the stress level is too high. Then you get increased cortisol, high adrenaline levels, poor sleep, anxiety, poor digestion, and on and on.
The question is…
How much stress is too much?
…And the answer is, it depends on your stress resilience.
Some people handle stress gracefully – thrive on it even. Even when under high amounts of pressure, they are able to keep a clear head, make effective decisions, and their overall game isn’t affected.
These people have a high stress resilience, and it can be beautiful to watch them work.
On the other hand, some people crumble under pressure. Even with small amounts of pressure, they fluster, negative emotions get the better of them. They make rash choices without thinking them through, because they can’t think them through – not in that state.
These people have a low stress resilience.
What’s makes someone resilient to stress?
It isn’t just one thing, but stress resilience comes from a variety of sources:
- Genetics: there’s a genetic component to personality traits like neuroticism, which you could suppose make you more susceptible to stress. Some people are just born a little more tightly wound than others.
- Experience: Imagine the first time you gave a speech. If it went well and you got a standing ovation, how would you feel about doing it again? Probably pretty good. What about if it went terribly – your pants fell down and everyone pointed and laughed at you. Would you want to give a speech again? Probably never again, ever! The nervous system learns – it’s doing this to keep you safe, but sometimes it gets a little overactive and we have to help it unlearn.
- Thoughts: Imagine a deadline approaching. Imagine thinking “Shit, I’ve only go two days I’ll never do this, I’m so crap I’m such a loser.” Now imagine instead you thought “I’m in a bit of a mess but I’ll do my best to get this done.” What would affect your stress level the most? Resilient people, for one reason or another, talk to themselves in a supportive, encouraging, compassionate way. Low resilience people tend to be overly self-critical.
- Habits: You’ve gotta get the foundations in order! If you don’t exercise, eat a bad diet, don’t take any steps to mentally decompress, and generally don’t look after yourself, generally speaking, you’ll be less resilient to stress. This is because, through your bad habits, your body is already under stress – so you’re at a higher stress point to begin with.
How can you become more resilient to stress?
If you resonate with the low resilience description, it’s important not to beat yourself up about it.
It’s not your fault – I mean, you didn’t choose to be like that, and berating yourself about it isn’t going to help now, is it?
You can’t change your genes, and you can’t change your past experiences. But you can change your thoughts, habits, and future experiences.
Get the foundations in order
Start with the basics. Exercise, eat healthy, do something to mentally decompress (meditation, yoga, relaxation, spend time in nature etc), quit smoking and vaping, keep alcohol consumption within recommended limits, etc.
Psychologists have found a clear relationship between stress and sleep, and it’s a two-way one. If you’re stressed, you sleep worse, and if you sleep better, you’ll be less stressed.
So do what you can to improve your sleep. Don’t consume caffeine after midday. Turn off all screens and dim your lights an hour before bed. Make sure your bedroom is cool. Do some stretching, meditation or yoga before bed to help you relax (one of the reasons you toss and turn so much is because your muscles are tight, so it’s hard to find a comfortable position).
Human being are perhaps the most social species that we know of. The brain “expects” social contact, in just the same way that car engines “expect” a certain amount of use. If they don’t get it, they don’t perform at the optimal level.
So, make sure you maintain some social contact in your life, and keep in touch with friends and family. If you don’t have any friends and you don’t like your family, well you’re in a slight pickle there, but you could look up meetup groups in your area on things you’re interested in.
Learn how to talk to yourself
As I mentioned earlier, resilient people are good friends with themselves. They talk to themselves in positive, constructive ways.
Learning how to talk to yourself is a whole mission in itself, but it basically has three stages:
- Become more aware of your thoughts
- Stop overly critical or outright hurtful thoughts in their tracks
- Replace them with constructive, supportive thoughts
Mindfulness meditation is a good tool to help you with (1). For (2), ask yourself, would you accept another person talking to you like that? Or if that doesn’t resonate with you, ask yourself, would you accept another person talking to a loved one like that? If not, don’t think that – either move your attention elsewhere, or move on to (3), in which you can use CBT or another reframing technique.
Engineer positive experiences
There’s a therapeutic technique called “flooding” which might be useful here. They use it when treating phobias.
Say you have a phobia of spiders. First the therapist might show you picture of a spider. Initially, it will freak you out. You might look at it for 5 seconds, then your fear response kicks into overdrive. Then, you work with the therapist to calm yourself down, and try again.
Over time, you get used to it and pictures don’t bother you as much. So you watch a video of a spider. Seeing the creepy way its legs move is different to a still image, so your fear response kicks in again. However, through slow, gradual exposure when you’re in a safe environment, the nervous system learns not to activate a fear response to the videos.
You continue increasing your exposure to spiders in a slow manner. You look at a real spider, but one that’s in a glass cage. Then you sit with a small one free, but one that’s far away from you. You get the idea – you gradually expose yourself to the fear, bit by bit, so the nervous system learns not to trigger the stress response when it sees a spider.
It’s the same with stress. If your overall stress level in life is low – that’s great! But if you want to build resilience to stress, it’s not so great. Try to seek out a source of stress – but like with the spider, remember two things:
- Make it only a baby step up from the stress level you can comfortably handle right now
- Be prepared with ways to deal with the stress that does arise – whether that’s some CBT, a meditation technique, social support, or something else
Ask a little more of yourself – expose yourself to some stress, and learn to calm yourself under those conditions. Then step it up a little more.
If you do this, you’ll build your resilience. Then, when life throws an actual stressful event at you, you’ll be better placed to handle it.
Remove or reduce the source of the stress
You’ve gotta know when to just stop enduring something. Avoid the martyr complex at all costs, where you feel like you’re gaining some kind of praise-worthy moral superiority because you’re putting up with something that you really do not have to.
This is a big complaint I have with the self-help industry in general, but workplace well-being initiatives specifically. Because they can sometimes put the onus of dealing with stress on the individual, when the cause is systemic in nature.
If you’re in a toxic work environment – yes, by all means, use the ideas here to reduce your stress level while you’re in that place, but make a plan to get yourself out of it, and into somewhere more nurturing.
This is called “problem focused coping.” It just means you solve the problem, rather than deal with the stress.
You might think this is not relevant to resilience, but it is. Even the most resilient people have their limits – and they know where they are. When they approach their limit, they do something. If you become over-stressed, beyond your ability to cope, you’re training the stress response to over-activate – which can reduce your resilience to stresses in the future.
So, if your workload is unfairly high, talk to your boss about it. If bills are the issue, find a charity that can advise you on what to do about your debts, and read everything you can about frugality. If your neighbour is being too loud, talk to them about it.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t just try to tackle it alone based on what you read on some blog on the internet (even this one!). Get some help – talk to a close, trusted friend about it, or speak to a professional.