In a previous blog post, I mentioned what stress is and how it affects us. How we react to stress and the meaning we give to stressful life events is different from person to person, some having more tolerance when dealing with stress, some giving up more easily.
Those who can better adapt to stress, who are stronger and more tolerant in difficult situations are also called “hardy” personalities. They have an increased resistance to illnesses, they adapt well in the face of significant sources of stress such as relationships, work, health, or financial problems.
My experience showed me that although people arrive at adulthood with different levels of emotional hardiness or resilience, almost anyone can become better at it, by working to take a more active and committed approach to their life.
1. An important step in increasing your resilience is to be aware of your natural reaction to stress, what thoughts you have in those times, what behavioral changes occur, how your body reacts.
This means developing the habit of taking a few minutes a day to ask yourself: how am I today, how do I feel, what do I need?
In times of stress, some people may withdraw, avoiding social interactions, others become more agitated or conflicted, or engage in unhealthy behaviors (eat more or less, drink more alcohol, smoke, or bury themselves with work). Some react by having predominantly negative thoughts like anxiety, or depression, or may, at a physiological level, develop problems with digestion, experience sleep disruption, or have chronic pain.
These changes in behavior, thoughts, and physiology- when we observe them in time- let us know that something is wrong, that we have left our state of balance, and that we need to do something to return to normal.
From my experience I have noticed that often stress acts "silently", it has a cumulative effect, it develops over time so that we do not even realize how stressed we are. If both work and family take over and we completely miss the time to check in with ourselves, there are great chances that we will wake up feeling swept away by stress.
So, in fact, a first step in becoming more resilient is to be in touch with yourself, with what you feel, do, and think to prevent yourself from entering a more advanced state of stress.
2. Be aware of where your focus is and try to 'unlock' it from the negatives and to intentionally direct it to the positives in your life.
When we go through hard times or when we are constantly exposed to stress, we notice a polarization of emotions towards the most negative: anxiety, fear, depression, self-criticism because we constantly think about what happened to us. The longer we keep our focus there, the more likely we are to attract negative states. In other words, worries turn into generalized anxiety or even panic attacks, sadness after a loss or a breakup becomes depression, guilt turns into self-criticism.
Barbara Fredrikson, one of the first researchers of positive emotions, dedicated her career to promoting their power over us. Among others, one of the most important positive emotions we can turn to in unfavorable conditions is certainly gratitude: to thank and appreciate what is good in our lives.
The transition from negative to positive states is a gradual one, it will not happen overnight. But hope, another positive emotion, is the main ingredient that will help us make this transition.
3. Maintain a balanced life when things are going well. This will increase your ability to cope with bad times.
Let's take as a parallel the stress that a house is subjected to overtime: bad weather, earthquakes. The strongest the house's foundation, the more resistant materials used for its building, the more is cared for and repaired in time, the longest will it resist in time.
Likewise, the strongest our value system, the more we prioritize taking care of our body, mind, and soul, the better we will be able to withstand the inevitable stresses we'll be exposed to in life.
If something happens to you when you are in an unbalanced physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual state, the effects will be deeper and I think, longer-lasting. But when you are in balance with yourself and those surrounding you, you have robust health, chances are you will recover better and in a shorter time.
Start prioritizing self-care when things are going well for you! The results will show later up for sure.
4. Learn the ability to manage your finances.
You might wonder why is this important?
I strongly believe that financial education should be part of anyone’s education. Financial stress is a very common factor affecting not only individuals but couples too. Young adults often start life with debts, adults engage in expenses over the budget so imagine the pressure and stress when one loses his job.. Unfortunately, people often “suffer” from an optimistic view and think bad things will never happen to them, but the truth is that life is fragile and anytime we can experience something unpleasant. Knowing how to manage your finances by avoiding unnecessary expenses and ideally having a rescue account, will offer you access to good services like health facilities when you need, will give you the possibility to give yourself time in the case of losing your job, will give you financial freedom in case of a divorce.
5. Improve your communication skills.
Whether it means becoming a more assertive person or learning to manage anger and conflict, expressing your needs and expectations, communicating with yourself and others is always a skill that can be very helpful when dealing with stress. Poor communication is a source of a lot of stress (think about couples or problems with colleagues at work), so a resilient person has a good command of communication skills. Many people, in times of stress, tend to withdraw and say nothing, keeping it all to themselves. Or, some do exactly the opposite: they become more aggressive, verbally attacking others. Finding the middle ground, engaging in healthy and constructive solution-oriented dialogue is a skill that can be worked on.
Unfortunately in my praxis, I encounter people who do not feel safe enough to talk with their closest about their own problems. Keeping it all inside might help in the short term, but in the longer term tension will build up.
When it comes to communication with ourselves, most (if not all) therapeutic approaches recommend self-compassion, rather than self-blame as many of us tend to do. Talk to yourself as your best friend would, and it will be much better than blaming or punishing yourself.
Psychotherapy too plays an important role in helping you build resilience. Some of the interventions I use with success are:
- Increase self and social– awareness, identify negative patterns of thoughts and the behaviors these are leading to.
- Look at situations from different perspectives, reflecting on past events in a safer space and making peace with them.
- Work on minimalizing unhealthy behaviors (such as addictions) and make a place for learning healthier responses to stress.
In the end, becoming more resilient doesn’t mean that we avoid pain in our lives, but that we can learn to deal with it more adaptively. It means that we become aware of our inner strengths and manage to move on, that we don’t give up, that we intentionally make space for more optimism. I’m very often moved by people, who despite very difficult situations, continue to live with hope and gratitude for what is still worth appreciation in their own lives.
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