The 7 Habits of Highly Stress-Resilient Minds

Are you suf­fer­ing from chron­ic stress? Many of us are—whether we’re stressed out by our jobs, com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ships, care­giv­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties, or the gen­er­al state of the world.

That’s where Elis­sa Epel’s new book, The Stress Pre­scrip­tion, comes in. A health psy­chol­o­gist and direc­tor of the Aging, Metab­o­lism, and Emo­tions Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Fran­cis­co, Epel explains how stress affects our bod­ies and minds—including our health, hap­pi­ness, and longevity—and how to man­age it in the best way possible.

Too many of us are in a con­stant state of alert­ness, she argues, which makes us ill-pre­pared to nav­i­gate the every­day stres­sors and big­ger upsets that occur when liv­ing a full life. We may think we’re relaxed, but we’re actu­al­ly main­tain­ing a low-lev­el vig­i­lance that’s hard on our bod­ies. Con­stant phys­i­o­log­i­cal strain can short­en our telom­eres (the caps at the ends of our DNA that pro­tect it from aging)—a process she wrote about in her best­selling book, The Telom­ere Effect.

Epel empha­sizes that not all stress is inher­ent­ly bad—and that we shouldn’t aim for a stress-free life. We need our phys­i­o­log­i­cal stress response to sur­vive, as it can come in handy when we’re gear­ing up to per­form or fac­ing an actu­al life-or-death threat.

Any­thing worth doing will have aspects of stress woven through: chal­lenge, dis­com­fort, risk. We can’t change that. But what we can change is our response,” she says.

If we can learn how to han­dle stress bet­ter and build up stress resilience, we’re more like­ly to thrive, she argues. To do that, she rec­om­mends sev­en guide­lines and offers spe­cif­ic prac­tices to get us there.

1. Embrace uncertainty

Life is uncer­tain, and things will not always go accord­ing to plan. But, if we get bet­ter at tol­er­at­ing uncer­tain­ty, it can lead to less stress, as well as oth­er good things—like being able to trust oth­ers, col­lab­o­rate, and coop­er­ate more.

Tol­er­at­ing uncer­tain­ty means not always hav­ing rigid expec­ta­tions of the future. “Strong expec­ta­tions can hurt us whether they’re pos­i­tive (some­thing we’re look­ing for­ward to) or neg­a­tive (some­thing we’re dread­ing). Bet­ter to loosen our expec­ta­tions as much as we can,” says Epel.

One way to do that, she says, is to prac­tice mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, which keeps you focused on the present and pre­vents rumi­nat­ing too much on what unknow­able thing might hap­pen. While you’d be for­giv­en for think­ing it’s bet­ter to antic­i­pate dis­as­ters so that you’re pre­pared for them, she argues against that approach. Antic­i­pat­ing the worst leads to spikes of cor­ti­sol that are harm­ful to your health—and result in no bet­ter response to stress than not antic­i­pat­ing it.

2. Don’t fret about what you can’t control

Like the old adage goes, when things go wrong, it’s good to rec­og­nize what’s in your con­trol and what isn’t—and then focus your atten­tion on chang­ing what’s under your con­trol. For exam­ple, if your spouse sud­den­ly becomes inca­pac­i­tat­ed, and you’re called upon to become a caregiver—a huge stres­sor for most people—it’s bet­ter to accept real­i­ty, man­age what you can, and let go of the rest.

This may not sound easy. But with reflec­tion, says Epel, you might find that many things you rumi­nate about—what oth­ers think of you, a poten­tial ill­ness or diag­no­sis, the out­come of an election—are not under your con­trol, mak­ing wor­ry need­less and even prob­lem­at­ic. Once you real­ize this, you can focus on accept­ing what’s not con­trol­lable and mak­ing bet­ter choic­es about how to han­dle stres­sors actu­al­ly under your con­trol. That might mean let­ting go of super­flu­ous activ­i­ties, tak­ing breaks in your busy life for some rest­ful breath­ing, or prac­tic­ing self-compassion.

3. Harness the body’s stress response to meet challenges

Our bod­ies are well designed to enter into fight-or-flight mode when we are under threat or fac­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. But the phys­i­cal effects of stress depend on our attitude—whether we see it as a bad thing or rec­og­nize the pos­i­tive, ener­giz­ing ele­ments of that mode. When we see the ben­e­fits of stress, we actu­al­ly show a health­i­er stress response in our bodies—which can help us over­come challenges.

When we focus on the ben­e­fits of stress, we feel less stress about stress, pay atten­tion to pos­i­tive cues rather than threat­en­ing cues, and approach sit­u­a­tions more con­fi­dent­ly rather than avoid them,” writes Epel.

This kind of reframe can be help­ful for accept­ing our mis­takes along the way when we try new things. Know­ing that fail­ure, chal­lenge, and stress can be an impor­tant part of reach­ing our goals can help us to take them less to heart—and pre­vent us from giv­ing up too soon.

How to do it? Reframed state­ments around stress—like say­ing, “This is excit­ing! I can appre­ci­ate this feel­ing” as opposed to “This is so stress­ful. I hate this feeling.”—have been found over many stud­ies to reduce our neg­a­tive feel­ings about stress.

4. Train your cells to metabolize stress better

Chron­ic stress is nev­er good for us. But get­ting an occa­sion­al shot of high stress that our bod­ies can tol­er­ate and eas­i­ly recov­er from—something Epel calls “hormet­ic stress”—is actu­al­ly good for us. It builds resilience at the cel­lu­lar lev­el and makes us bet­ter pre­pared to han­dle future, unex­pect­ed stressors.

While all exer­cise is good for man­ag­ing stress and improv­ing our health, Epel rec­om­mends high-inten­si­ty inter­val train­ing (HIIT), which gives you the most bang for your buck. HIIT involves short bursts of high-inten­si­ty exer­cise fol­lowed by a recov­ery peri­od, and it has become very pop­u­lar for peo­ple who have less time to exercise.

For those who can’t do HIIT, there are oth­er ways to expose our cells to short bursts of stress, such as tak­ing a cold show­er or using a sauna. Though the research is rel­a­tive­ly new, Epel pro­vides some evi­dence that both of these can increase stress resilience and lead to bet­ter health, too (though you might want to check with a doc­tor before try­ing them out).

5. Use nature to recalibrate

There is ample evi­dence that spend­ing time in nature reduces stress and improves well-being. Epel argues that “expo­sure to nature, in all forms and con­texts, is one of the most pow­er­ful and imme­di­ate ways to reduce stress.”

Being in green spaces allows us to expe­ri­ence “atten­tion restoration”—a kind of recov­ery from the stress of cog­ni­tive over­load and con­stant stim­u­la­tion that many peo­ple expe­ri­ence in their every­day lives. Expe­ri­enc­ing nature can also pro­duce feel­ings of awe, which, in turn, reduce stress—along with a host of oth­er ben­e­fits. If you don’t have easy access to the woods or an urban park, take heart. Even look­ing out at the night sky or watch­ing nature videos can be calming.

6. Practice deep rest

We all need to relax in order to reduce stress in our lives. But, says Epel, we also need to find moments of deep relax­ation where we expe­ri­ence “pro­tect­ed, tech-free, rest-focused down­time for our­selves.” This kind of deep rest is dif­fer­ent from what we typ­i­cal­ly think of as “relax­ing”— like loung­ing on a couch and watch­ing TV or walk­ing our dog at night. It’s more about the kind of expe­ri­ence you might have on a med­i­ta­tion retreat, where you prac­tice let­ting go of all respon­si­bil­i­ty and just being.

Of course, sleep­ing or nap­ping are ways we can get that kind of rest—if we’re good at them, which many of us aren’t. But there are oth­er things we can do, too. Epel sug­gests spe­cif­ic deep breath­ing exer­cis­es, which is some­thing under our con­trol that can quick­ly put us into a relaxed state—and has all kinds of ben­e­fits for our physiology.

7. Find moments of joy in your life

When we feel hap­py, we tend not to feel so stressed out. So, says Epel, it’s impor­tant to cul­ti­vate more moments of joy in our lives—especially moments of pur­pose and mean­ing. “The sci­ence of hap­pi­ness and joy is pret­ty clear: It’s good for the mind, good for the body, good for stress resilience,” she says.

While chas­ing hap­pi­ness can actu­al­ly hurt your well-being if you get too obses­sive, you can sim­ply turn your mind toward notic­ing the pos­i­tive. One prac­tice she sug­gests (which I took to heart, per­son­al­ly) is chang­ing the way you wake up and go to bed at night. Rather than star­tling awake and imme­di­ate­ly think­ing about all you need to get done, she sug­gests tak­ing a moment to imag­ine what you’re look­ing for­ward to that day. Sim­i­lar­ly, before going to sleep at night, you can recount the hap­pi­est parts of your day and what you’re grate­ful for.

Hap­pi­ness and grat­i­tude give us that reserve capac­i­ty, the charge to our bat­tery,” she writes. “They give us the resources to zoom out, take a healthy per­spec­tive, see the chal­lenge, stay flex­i­ble, and be resilient.”

While some of these tips for man­ag­ing stress may be famil­iar to you, it’s def­i­nite­ly help­ful to have them all in one place. Thank­ful­ly, the book is short and easy to read, yet still chock full of research—as well as ideas on how to make the find­ings work for you, per­son­al­ly. By fol­low­ing Epel’s pre­scrip­tion, you are bound to increase your resilience to stress—and be hap­pi­er and health­i­er for it.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., serves as a staff writer and con­tribut­ing edi­tor for Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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