Being resilient means being able to face the stressors that life throws you and cope well enough with them that you recover relatively quickly. And with all that is going on in the world right now, it can seem that the stressors never stop coming (politics, violence, financial strain)…so it is all the more important to find ways to manage. In the March newsletter, we reviewed the ways that your mental perspective can help you manage stress and in June we talked about ways to proactively prevent the negative effects of stress by managing your emotions with skill and being mindful of the positive things in your life.
Now we are going to talk about the value of getting enough sleep, exercise, oxygen, and healthy food. For the most part, these are all things we can influence by the daily decisions we make and they can help us get through tough times with more resilience and even get more out of the good times!
You might be wondering, how is sleep related to stress and resilience? Turns out, the amount of sleep you get, or don’t get can really impact how you experience the stress – if you don’t get enough sleep, small stressors can be experienced as much worse than they might after a good night of sleep. Research has also shown that when you don’t get enough sleep, you deprive your brain of the time it needs to do certain cleanup functions that generally strengthen neuroplasticity (i.e., the brain’s capacity to adapt and change by building new connections). And as you probably know, how well you sleep is unfortunately impacted by the amount of stress in your life. People who report more stress have a harder time getting to sleep and not getting enough sleep has been connected with obesity, ADHD symptoms, and decreased resilience to stress.
Thankfully, sleep and exercise are two areas of your life that you can influence. Circadian rhythms are not mystical propositions. Turns out there is basically a master clock in the brain that helps keep everything regulated (the suprachiasmatic nucleus
Studies have shown again and again that most adults need 7-9 hours per evening. While our culture and our electronic gadgets don’t really support the idea of slowing down, your body really needs light during the day and dark at night to support circadian rhythms. Too much light at night (e.g. the electronic screens of all kinds) confuses the body and interrupts the natural winding down and resting process that the body and brain need to restore and prepare for the next day of activity.
What can you do to improve your sleep, even while you are stressed?! You can work toward better sleep habits like avoiding long naps (20-30 minutes max) and sleeping in a cool dark space. Try to be consistent and develop healthy rituals or routines for sleep (quiet down an hour before bed, turn off electronic screens, establish a set of bedtime habits like drinking herbal tea while reading a magazine) so that you train your body and brain to move toward rest.
Getting enough exercise is also crucial to increasing resilience. Researchers have found that even short periods of exercise in the morning can contribute to energy levels that support a regulated sleep-wake cycle. They have also found that moderate and regular exercise decreases cortisol levels (a stress hormone) and even a 10-minute brisk walk can reduces anxiety and increase daytime energy.
There are two other things that for most people are largely under “our control”; breathing and eating a healthy diet. And again, as with sleep and exercise, they are often not well managed during periods of stress even though they are part of the antidote!
When feeling stressed, many people tense up and actually temporarily stop breathing, or start breathing in a very shallow manner which decreases oxygen to the body. Remember to breath! The brain and the body both work better with adequate supplies of oxygen and in turn manage stress better.
Similarly, when stressed, many people eat whatever is quick and available, and often crave high carb, high sugar foods. These choices might feel good in the short term, but have a negative impact on overall health and resilience. Research has shown the benefits of a Mediterranean diet which is high in omega3 fatty acids and comprised of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, whole grains, and very limited red meats or refined sugars. Keeping these nutritional elements in mind when planning meals can do two very positive things for your resiliency: the can improve your immunity and health and also add to your sense of taking charge of life where you can. If you think you might need to change your eating habits, start with tracking what you are currently eating. This is a terrific awareness-building tool and research has shown that this alone has lead to weight loss, better food choices and greater self-efficacy.
The key thing to remember about resiliency is that it is not a personality trait that you either have or you don’t. It is buoyed and depleted by behaviors in one’s control. The way you think and talk yourself through a problem, the awareness you have about your emotions and ways to manage them, the food you eat, the walks you go on, the sleep you get, and the breathes you take…all add up to act as protective insulation from stressors. There are many things that cannot be controlled in life, you can work towards developing healthy habits and increasing your awareness of ways to improve your quality of life…in spite of the stress it brings.