Whether we are preparing for a job interview, studying for an exam, experiencing loss, or moving to a new place, all of us have experienced stress at some point in our lives – it is an inevitable, universal experience. The response to stress, however, can vary widely from person to person. And how we respond to stressors plays a vital role in our physical and mental well-being.
Stress can be acute or chronic. While major life stressors such as trauma or loss can have profound influences on health, even low levels of chronic stress can have negative consequences on the body. The effects of stress can also adversely impact our mental health and contribute to burnout, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. However, even in the face of adversity, it is possible to recover and move forward: to be resilient.
What does it mean to be resilient?
Sometimes people think of resilience as an ability to “snap back” to however we were before the experience of a stressor, but this definition misses the mark. Resilience is the ability to adapt in response to adversity. An experience may change us; it’s how we integrate those changes as we move forward that matters.
Our response to stressful experiences is influenced by a combination of biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors. Research suggests that there are several genetic and neurobiological factors associated with resilience. The body’s physical response to stress involves multiple body systems, including the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (our “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” systems, respectively) and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). The ability to properly regulate the stress response can be affected by genetically mediated differences in the reactivity of these systems, as well as differences in the functioning of organs involved.
There are also many psychosocial factors that contribute to resilience. For example, positive emotion, cognitive flexibility (the ability to reframe adversity in a positive light), and strong social support have all been associated with resilience. With these factors in mind, resilience appears to be more of a “state” than a distinct “trait.” If we embrace this perspective, it means that resilience can be learned, built and strengthened at any moment.
As humans, we are remarkably resilient; we can adapt even in the face of significant stress.
Resilience and Eating Disorders
The distress that accompanies eating disorders can take a toll on the mind and body. It is not uncommon for people to experience moments of feeling helpless, confused, and overwhelmed at multiple points throughout recovery. Finding positive ways to cope plays a critical role in getting through those moments, making choices in the service of health rather than illness, and preventing relapse.
Resilience and COVID-19
Resilience also allows us to become better equipped to handle future stressors. Currently, we are all experiencing the added stress and uncertainty of a global public health crisis. Even those who manage to avoid the disease are not spared from the social, professional, educational, and financial impact of the pandemic. And, as we’ve written elsewhere, individuals with eating disorders may be at particular risk. Now, more than ever, we must strive to be resilient, to stay socially connected and, in the case of eating disorder recovery, to maintain the practices that solidify wellness.
Building and Strengthening Resilience
- Practice self-care. Get enough sleep. Limit media consumption by being strategic about what, when and who you watch or read.
- Set aside some worry time. Write down difficult thoughts as they enter your mind and come back to them later in the day at a designated time. During this time, consider these steps to process your emotions:
- Identify the emotions that you are experiencing and give yourself permission to feel. It’s okay to feel sad, angry, or depressed – avoiding your emotions entirely can make them more difficult to manage effectively.
- Explore why you are feeling this way, perhaps by writing down some thoughts. Think about what has been helpful to you in the past or problem-solve options for the particular worry. Write down your ideas for future reference. If there is no clear ‘solution’ for the worry, then choose to test out a healthy coping strategy (for example, talking to a friend about the worry or doing a calming activity, like gardening) and evaluate if it helps (even briefly).
- Create time to pay attention to the positive things in life. Dwelling on the challenges that you encounter each day can easily overshadow the good things. Pay attention to at least three positive things that happen each day to build alternate foci.
- Use mindfulness and meditation.
- Breathe. Focus on each breath as you inhale and exhale. Try to intentionally slow your breathing by exhaling for one second longer than your inhale.
- Ground yourself. Direct your attention to the physical sensations of your body (Read here for specific exercises.)
- Embrace a growth mindset. Believing that things are permanent, a fixed mindset, usually adds to helplessness and stress. Remember that the future matters more than the past in determining your well-being. Focus on the things that you can control and think about what you can do to reframe adversity in a positive light.
- Build and maintain strong connections with others. Having a social support system will help you navigate obstacles you encounter. Connect with friends and family on a regular basis. If you can’t be with them in person, get creative and connect virtually.
Every person has their own way of responding to stress; what one person finds helpful may not work as well for another. However, the path toward resilience requires flexibility. While there are many things in our lives that we cannot control, we can use our own unique individual strengths to develop new skills that enhance resilience.
- Road to Resilience: a monthly podcast series presented by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai created by Dr. Dennis Charney, MD, and Steven Southwick, MD that explains the science behind resilience
- Growing Resilience: Anna Allmann, PhD, Columbia University
- Apps to consider: Calm, Headspace, COVID Coach
- Dealing with coronavirus anxiety