Tips for Building Resilience to Stress

Stress is a silent killer.  I think we will look back on stress like we now look at tobacco; why would you start smoking today knowing the impact?

We live in a VUCA world.  Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  With current political and social events, this is only increasing.  What is more, we are constantly connected through technology to this world and we are expected (mainly by ourselves) to deliver at an exceptional standard, oh, and of course, instantly.

Stress is not always bad, some stress has an evolutionary function to help us perform as the chart below shows.

However, extreme stress, or prolonged stress, is extremely bad for us.  It is like running your car with the accelerator permanently floored. Eventually, unless we put the clutch in, the engine will blow.

Have a quick think about how stressed you are now?  1-10 with 10 being very stressed.  What would your average score be over the last year?  If you want to take a more detailed stress test here is a link to the ISMA stress questionnaire which is toward the bottom of the linked page.

Stress is caused by external factors (situations or threats or changes that require adaptation) and, more powerfully, by internal factors (our own dialogue, our personal resilience).   It is also caused when our lives are not in balance.  You can read more about this in a previous blog here

We can also ‘catch’ stress from others.  Have you wondered why you yawn when someone else does?  These are our mirror neurones at work which mimic others.  Although crucial in development and relationships, they can also be a conduit for absorbing other peoples stress.  Perhaps reduce the interactions with the stress conductors in your life. Or if you cannot, then let them know what is going on for you.  Also, catch yourself; you do not need to get drawn into their ‘stories’.

There are several, self-inflicted reasons that make us more prone to stress;

Control – trying to do everything ourselves and to control the un-controllables
Perfectionism- self-critical with very high standards
Responsibility- assume we can change everything
Low self-protection (resilience)
Identity and rest of life very dependent on work success
Negative self-talk (I know this is going to go badly)
The effects of extreme stress are felt in all areas of life.  We will be more forgetful and make worse decisions.  We will feel anxious, tearful and change the way we eat.  We may have panic attacks, aches and pains, bowel problems, palpitations and get ill frequently.  We can withdraw from others, become aggressive and lose our sense of humour.  And, of course, we sleep worse.  If you feel any of these symptoms for more than 5 days in a row, you need to make a change.

I am sometimes asked the differences between stress, worry and anxiety.  Simply put, worry is productive stress. One that occupies you for up to an hour a day and triggers problem solving.  It is temporary and centres around realistic concerns.  Anxiety is ongoing, up to 5 hours per day, and leads to hopelessness and is felt in the body rather than the head.   If you feel this way, it is best to consult your GP as well doing some of the exercises below.

But I hear you say, it is not that bad, I am just going to keep going.  Well 70% of visits to the doctor and 85% of serious illnesses are linked to stress.  Anxiety increases the chance of depression and heart attacks and is now being linked to the growth of cancerous cells.  Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn and psychologist Elisabeth Epel, have found that constant stress actually wears down our telomeres, the caps of our DNA that protect our cells from illness and ageing.  Oh and it shrinks your brain!

If you really do just keep going, the body will step in which is when people experience a breakdown. Having worked with people in this situation, it takes at least 3-6 months to return to work, and normally to a different type of work.

So what can we do about it? Often we cannot remove the external factors (our jobs, commuting, family) but we can change the way we choose to react to these stressors.  We can accept that we cannot control everything and that sometimes good enough is better than perfect and that we are not able to fix everything we would like to .

We can also build our resilience in the way we would build a muscle. Your resilience is your protective layer against stress,Your score on the  chart below will act as a guide to gauge your current levels of resilience. Add up your score for each of the 9 factors of stress.

You are looking for a score of 10+ with the ideal being in the high teens. Negative means you need to take some urgent action. Pick your lowest scores and then click here if you would like to see a list of resilience boosting techniques. Pick one or two to work on initially.

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