3 Simple Ways to Build Stress Resilience

Feb 18, 2024 | Confidence, Stress

We typically can’t control the stress that comes our way, but we can improve our stress resilience.

The importance of stress resilience

When we have greater stress resilience, we don’t stress over the stress as much, and we recover more quickly.

More than that, stress resilience helps improve our thoughts, behavior and mood. And in the longterm, we improve our brains and our health.

How stress affects the brain and self-regulation

The prefrontal cortex is like the CEO of our brains. It helps us perform many of our higher-level cognitive functions, like decision-making, planning, and understanding others; but also is critical to our capacity to control our attention, thoughts, emotions and behavior.

Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex is also the area of the brain most likely to deactivate during stress, and actually be damaged from stress.

Research by neurobiologist Amy Arnsten at Yale Medical School has shown that under stress, the amygdala (part of the limbic brain associated with fight-flight-freeze reactions) activates stress pathways in the brain that produce levels of hormones that inhibit the prefrontal cortex (e.g., noradrenaline and dopamine).

These same hormones also activate the amygdala, which means greater reactivity and less self-regulation and nuanced thinking.

And each time we react reflexively to stress, we lower what Dr. Dan Siegel calls our “window of tolerance” for whatever triggered the stress. In doing so, we lose capacity for self-regulation.

Widening our window of tolerance

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is the power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Dr. Viktor Frankl

As I share in my Pathways to Change program, that space Frankl talks about is awareness. By bringing awareness to the triggered reaction, whether it’s anger or numbing, we can change our habitual response and choose a different one (even if that’s doing nothing).

In this process, we move from reactivity to mindful response, and we change our brains’ neural patterns to one that supports greater self-regulation and stress resilience.

We still get triggered, especially in the beginning, and we feel the discomfort, but with awareness we can pause and, even if just for a few seconds, widen our window of tolerance.

And as with any practice, it gets easier over time, as we strengthen the neural pathways to the prefrontal cortex.

3 simple ways to improve your stress resilience

Despite some factors that we can’t control (e.g., personality type, genetics and and past experiences), we can absolutely improve our stress tolerance because many more factors are within our control.

In fact, believing that we have some control over our stress is actually one of the ways to increase stress tolerance.

Even when we can’t control external circumstances, which is often, there are 3 simple things we can do to build stress resilience:

(1) Change your mindset about the stress. Some stress can be good. It can motivate us to act. Plus, when you believe that you can always do something about whatever comes your way – that you can handle the stress – then you won’t need to stress about the stress. That’s a sign of stress resilience.

(2) Recognize your stress and name it. Ignoring your stress doesn’t improve your stress resilience. In fact, it can do the opposite. But paying attention to it and putting it into words can improve your response. Cool, right? And it’s backed by research. A study by Professor Matthew Lieberman at UCLA showed that simply naming a negative feeling helps to decrease activity in the amygdala region of the brain and activates part of our prefrontal cortex.

(3) Use the breath and body. I call this bottom-up regulation, because we can use the body and breath to improve stress resilience by activating the parasympathetic nervous system to promote a calming response. This is particularly useful when we can’t change our mindset or thoughts first. Here are some practical ways to do this:

    • Slow and deepen the breath, and try to lengthen the exhale. You might inhale slowly to a count of 3, and exhale to a count of 5.
    •  Splash your face with cold water. This simple act stimulates the vagus nerve which is a large parasympathetic nerve connecting many internal organs to the brain. (For more on the vagus nerve, read this post.)
    •  Hum, or if you are a yogi, chant om. This sound causes a gentle vibration in the vocal cords that stimulates the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic response.
    • Gentle movement and yoga, or simply relaxing the muscles, can also signal calm to the nervous system.

Remember that consistent practice is the best way to make change and to permanently improve your stress resilience. So choose one, or choose them all, but begin! Your brain and your body will thank you.

And if you’d like to explore improving your stress resilience with some brain-based coaching, schedule a free 20-minute consult here.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash 


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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