Building Resilience to Stress by Jemma Komodromou

August 11, 2023

by Management Dynamics

I think it’s fair to say that we are in a state of flux right now. As the world changes at an ever-expanding rate, our ability to deal with these changes becomes harder and harder. And because of this, you may feel stress.

Stress is (and I quote Dr Sarah McKay, a renowned neuroscientist and creator of “The Neuroscience Academy” here) a highly nuanced orchestrated response to a real or imagined threat or challenge’.

The thing is stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the main reason we feel stress is because our brain is trying to keep us safe by responding to threating situations in an appropriate manner. But – if we’re in a stress state for too long, it is toxic to both our brains and body and can lead to all sorts of physical and mental health problems. 

The reason behind this is there is a part of our brain that handles our stress response called the amygdala. The amygdala is sort of the night club bouncer to our brain, and it scans for threat all the time.

One of the jobs the amygdala has is to activate a part of our brain called the hippocampus which is responsible for learning and memory. The interesting thing is that if there is too little or too much arousal from the amygdala, it inhibits the hippocampus from learning. It’s a bit like Goldilocks – you need a bit of stress to allow you to hit that sweet spot – which is where the main difference between pressure and stress comes in. If you feel pressure, chances are you’re hitting that sweet spot! (See our bell curve below, also known as the performance vs pressure curve *)

Pressure is a good stress – it motivates us and helps facilitate all sorts of change and can actually build our memory formation AND our attention. Think about all the times you’ve been under pressure, and you’ve thrived. It probably felt great! (And training under pressure is what top athletes do to stress themselves to hit their next PB).

The trick is to build our resilience to help us thrive in stressful situations, and allow us to feel the pressure, but not burn out because the (real or imaginary) pressures have exceeded our perceived ability to cope (stress).

Top Tips for Calming Stress:

So, what can we do when we are stressed? Here are some of my simple Top Tips for helping you calm the stress response down:

  • Intentional breathing – I use the 4x4x4 method (breath in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4). By doing this you’re essentially tricking they brain into a calm state because the deep breathing slows the heart rate down, which then sends messages to the brain up something called the vagus nerve and tell the brain it’s safe.
  • Vagus nerve massage – we can trick the vagus nerve in other ways through simple massage. Check out this link by Sukie Baxter who shares how to activate the vagus nerve to calm the body down:
  • Take a break – Breaks should never be a reward for a job well done, and you will be more productive in the long run. As a chronic procrastinator (which then feeds into my stress response) I use the Pomodoro technique – a simple productivity technique which ensures I take breaks… but it also keeps me focused through work sprints. It works by setting a timer for 25 minutes. In this time, I stay focused on my task at hand. No getting distracted by emails, my phone, or the cute cat video on YouTube. When that time is up – even if you’re mid-sentence – stop for a 5-minute break. Repeat this three times and then take a longer break to refresh. And I promise you, you do have time to do this. 
  • Move and feed your body – it doesn’t have to be 2 hours lifting weights in the gym, but even a simple walk in some fresh air for 10 minutes can help calm the body down. And similarly, feed it delicious but healthy things – we may want to skip dinners if we’re working too much and under stress. This is the worst thing you can do!!
  • Practice sleep hygiene – when under stress, the first thing to go is sleep. But practising basic sleep hygiene can help create an environment which makes it easier to sleep. A few simple things to think about include:
    • A cool dark room with no electronics
    • A routine for going to bed… and waking up
    • No heavy meals/exercise/alcohol/device use a few hours before bed
  • Grounding techniques – If your mind is racing, grounding techniques brink you back to the present. A few example grounding techniques could include:
    • Challenge yourself to use your 5 senses. For example, name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.  
    • Think of a colour, and name at least 3 things you can see in that colour right where you are in that moment.
    • If I’m in bed, and struggling with my thoughts, I also play the ABC game – think of a topic (Say countries of the world) and come up with an answer for every letter.
  • Journaling and practising gratitude – Positive psychology suggests journaling and gratitudinal thinking rewires the brain to look for more positives around us. But make sure to keep this up and make it regular rather than a one-time shot.
  • Practice mindfulness – there some great apps out there like Calm and Headspace which can help with this, but there are also free resources on YouTube.
  • Focus on the small things that bring you joy – for me it includes looking after my garden, dressing up in my beautiful clothes for absolutely no reason at all, spending time with my husband and my cat, or having an hour’s long bubble bath. They work for me – but different things will work for you. Make sure you make a list of them, because I can guarantee when you’re in a stressful place, you’ll probably forget, and it will seem like too much trouble! 
  • Engage your brain – again, things like crosswords, reading or learning something new. For the greatest bang for your buck, things like learning a new language, a musical instrument, or even how to sail utilise more areas of your brain than anything else. 
  • Finally – notice what your stress looks like so you can do something about it: You WILL have a physical response. For me, I get tight shoulders and what feels like a lump in my chest, but stress can show up in numerous different ways. Headaches, racing heart and/or thoughts, inability to concentrate; there are just too numerous physical responses that people feel to list here. Another key way to notice is if you take an extended break for Christmas or a holiday – how often do you get a cold? Chances are, you’ve been unwittingly working under a stress response for too long and have just been coping! This is a great chance to now re-evaluate what you’re doing

One more thing to say – there are crutches we can use which aren’t healthy and can be harmful– it pains me to say it but a bottle of wine a night won’t help! So, making sure your strategies for coping with stress are healthy ones is so important. This list is by no means exhaustive but hopefully offers some food for thought and gives you some useful advice of how to manage in times of stress and crisis.

If you’re interested in finding out more about stress and developing resilience to it, here are a couple of great resources:

* Taken from Healthline: Yerkes Dodson Law – How it correlates to Stress, Anxiety, Performance

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