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resilient to stress

Strategy

How to get out of your head when stressed

Published 15 August 2022 in Strategy • 7 min read

Focusing on fostering connections, completing something difficult and helping others can make us more resilient to everyday stress, says Dr Samantha Boardman.

The day started badly: you spilt coffee on your favorite shirt, you missed your train, and when you finally arrived at the office you opened your inbox to find a rude email from a colleague. By the time you finish work, you are so worn down by the unrelenting barrage of daily hassles that all you want to do is curl up on the couch and watch Netflix with a glass of wine. 

Sound familiar? Often when faced with stress, our kneejerk reaction is to retreat into our own cocoon and to seek out passive activities.  

While this energy-saving behavior might make us feel better in the short-term, withdrawing from active participation with the world can be counterproductive if we want to learn to better cope with stress. Instead, we should be seeking out activities that can boost our emotional stamina and actively engaging with what might be stressing us out. 

In my book Everyday Vitality: Turning Stress into Strength, I argue that the three main wellsprings of vitality are all outer-orientated:  

  • Meaningfully connecting with others 
  • Engaging in experiences that challenge you 
  • Contributing to something beyond yourself 

Modern society puts a lot of attention into self-care. We are told that happiness is in our heads, or can be found by going off on a three-month silent retreat or spending a day at the spa. But these activities may make you feel more devitalized in the long run. By disengaging from the world, we miss out on the rewards that can come from fostering connections with others, completing something difficult or contributing within our communities. 

To try to override our built-in tendency to retreat, here are some practices to help build resilience to  everyday stress: 

Get curious about stress 

We live in a society that heaps pressure on individuals to be happy all the time, and to avoid stress at all costs. Stress, we are warned, causes depression and disease, will prematurely age us and even make us die earlier. Yet some stress can be beneficial for our brains. The term ‘cognitive wobble’ is used to describe the sense of uncertainty when you are being stretched, challenged and learning new things. 

Rather than trying to shut down stress, getting curious about what triggers it can help us learn to handle negative emotions better the next time they rear their head. After all, it’s not necessarily stress itself that is bad for us, but how we perceive it. A study of 30,000 Americans by the University of Wisconsin found that people exposed to large amounts of stress, and who viewed stress as harmful, had a higher risk of dying than those who viewed stress as a helpful response. 

If you find yourself feeling frazzled, ask yourself what might have triggered this response? Keep a diary of your daily stressors to create a record to learn from. How did you handle that stress? What steps can you take to deal with it better next time? 

Create a ‘bad day backup plan’ 

Given that daily micro-aggressors are unavoidable, pay attention to the small actions you can take to prevent stress from derailing your day.  

When we sleep badly, binge on unhealthy foods and forget to make time to move our bodies, we are more likely to perceive stress in a negative way. If you are feeling overwhelmed, taking the stairs or doing a lap around the block can shift your mood.  

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