Back to Blog

Improve Your Reaction to Stress

Published on May 19, 2020

How to Build Your Inner Resilience and Permanently Change the Way You React to Life’s Stressors

Have you ever wished you could react to the stress in your life differently? Stress response styles can vary from the physical (like aches, pains, or digestive issues) to the emotional (such as anger, anxiety, or restlessness) to the behavioral (like avoidance, nail-biting, or increased substance use or eating). But what if you could stay calmer and less reactive during these setbacks?

Many of us yearn to cope with stress in ways that don’t feel as uncomfortable or unhealthy, but we’re not sure where to begin when the reaction seems so automatic. Thankfully, we can take small but important steps to change our body’s individual auto-response to stress. And it begins with a helpful trait called resilience.

What is Resilience - and Why Does it Matter?

Pronounced Rih - Zil - Yen(t)s

Resilience is the ability to adapt well to challenges, trauma, tragedy, threats, or times of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial and stressors. (Source: American Psychological Association). Resilience is an important character trait to strive for because when life gets more challenging, as it inevitably does from time to time, resilience can help you cope. Think of resilience as a special mental strength or “power” that can help your mind and body lessen the impact of stress.

The good news is that no matter who you are or what your circumstances, we each have the ability to increase how quickly we “bounce back” from stress or challenges.

“Resilience is not something that a person either has or does not have,” says Munson Healthcare Community Health Coordinator Tara Rybicki, MS, RD, CDE. “It can be built within each of us through the way we think and through the actions we take.”

How to Build Your Resilience

There are many different ways we can increase our brain’s resistance to stress and tragedy. Some of these ways involve improving the daily functions of living that we already naturally practice, while other options are things you can begin to incorporate into your life little by little – though they add up to a significant change in the way your body handles outside stress.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a world-renowned pediatrician and California’s Surgeon General, explores some of the ways to help build resilience in her book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. These evidence-based interventions include:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Nutrition
  • Mindfulness/meditation
  • Mental health supports
  • Healthy relationships

Below, we explore more specific actions you can take to implement Dr. Burke Harris’ six interventions to increase your resilience.

Resilience Through Sleep. Getting a healthy dose of ZZZs can be especially challenging when you are worried or stressed, which then creates a vicious cycle because lack of proper sleep doesn’t exactly help our stress levels. In fact, according to Dr. Burke Harris, good sleep hygiene is very important for our immune systems, which can help to counteract toxic stress. Click here to find out just how much sleep you need for your age group, as well as some helpful tips to improve the quality of your sleep.

Resilience Through Exercise. Exercise is important in building a healthy physical and mental mindset. Study after study supports the numerous health benefits we gain from exercise, so fitting it into our routine is something we can feel really good about.

Here are a few tips from Ben Watson, MS, ACE-CMES, the Weight Management Coordinator at Munson Medical Center’s Healthy Weight Center.

  • Aim for 150 minutes (approximately 2 hours) of moderate exercise per week.
  • Start with short walks and gradually increase the time or distance.
  • Incorporate multiple styles of exercise into your routine: walking, biking, weight lifting, and yoga for example.
  • Don’t overthink it – simple routines are often the best.
  • Consistency is key.
  • Set goals if you are competitive.

Meditating for Resilience. You may have heard of the concepts of both meditation and mindfulness. Mindfulness (sometimes used interchangeably with meditation) is having awareness of what is happening within you and around you at the present moment, rather than thinking about events from the past or focusing on what you need to do in the future.

“When we catch ourselves focusing on the ‘what ifs,’ we have to understand that those worries are living in the future,” shares mindfulness expert Kristen Ryder.

Kristen is a trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness teacher, a school psychologist, and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Champion Trainer – you will sometimes catch her teaching a 

class at the Health and Wellness Suite inside of Cowell Family Cancer Center (open to the public), where she currently subs for other instructors.

Kristen often describes the practice of mindfulness to the students she works in four digestible parts:

Paying attention.

On purpose.

To the present moment.

Without judgment.

The last part - without judgment - is often key, Kristen shares. She emphasizes that when you catch yourself worrying or daydreaming during mindfulness (a very normal occurrence and especially when you first start out) you simply redirect yourself back to the present moment without any harming self-talk.

“To return to the present moment, just gently say to yourself, ‘Come on back to my breath, or to my inhales and exhales.’’” Kristen suggests.

Practicing mindfulness takes a lot of conscious effort at first before it starts to become a more natural part of your everyday life. That’s where meditation can play a big role. Meditation is the ancient practice of being still and “letting go” of your thoughts. Kristen, like many others, sees the practice of meditation as slightly different than mindfulness.

“Whereas mindfulness is all day, every day, meditation is more of a devotional practice. It’s sitting down and feeling connected,” she explains.

Some phone apps that can guide you along in meditation include Headspace; Calm; Stop, Breathe & Think; Smiling Mind; and 10% Happier (a meditation app “for fidgety skeptics”). For kids, Kristen recommends Mind Yeti, which you can explore via YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, and more.

Kristen has a final piece of advice as you consider practicing mindfulness and meditation during this stressful time.

“All of us are doing the best we can and what we can do with the emotional capacity we have right now,” she offers. “Do what you can and allow that to be okay.”

Mental Health Support for Resilience. Acknowledging when we need support, understanding that this support is okay, and reaching out for support when you need it are all incredibly important. We all need help from time to time, and it’s essential to know what you don’t have to go it alone. Click here for a list of mental health resources you can turn to during this time.


Eating for Resilience

More and more research in the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry shows that what we eat can significantly impact not just our physical health but also our mental health. Tara says that a higher intake of foods like vegetables, fruits, seafood, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, and beans can provide specific nutrients that can naturally help us build our resiliency.

So what does this look like under our current circumstances that include limited grocery store trips? As we explored in a few recent blogs, including Does it Matter?: Fresh, Frozen, or Canned Produce and 12 Healthy Foods with the Best Bang for Your Buck, many frozen and shelf-stable options can give you a significant dose of the nutrients resilience thrives on. Plenty of these items can also be found at local food pantries if you are currently challenged with food access. These include foods such as:

  • Canned tuna fish
  • Dried fruit
  • Dried or canned beans and lentils
  • Frozen berries
  • Frozen salmon
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Nut butters
  • Nuts, such as almonds, pistachios, walnuts
  • Oats
  • Popcorn
  • Seeds, such as chia, hemp, and milled flaxseed
  • Whole grains with a long shelf life, such as amaranth, farro, pasta, quinoa, and wild rice

Step by step, the extra measures you take to build your resilience can make a big impact over time. Do what you can now and make it a personal goal to slowly increase your efforts over time. Your stress-response (also referred to as your “fight or flight” response) can and will improve over time with these small changes.


Help is Available 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, confidential, 24/7 emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Call 1-800-273-8255 and speak to a counselor today.