Between endless work hours, financial worries, relationship troubles, and simply never having enough time, it’s no wonder that stress levels are sky-high. Add in a global pandemic, and it feels like we can’t escape the onslaught of aggravations. Just look at the most recent Stress in America report from the American Psychological Association. Americans rated their stress levels a 5.4—higher than the 4.9 reported in 2019 and the first significant increase in reported stress since 2007.
For most of us, when stress hits, we look for a way to smooth our frayed edges. After all, we’re told to avoid stress at all costs and there’s no shortage of research that shows stress is bad for your health and is linked to conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. So, we turn to sweaty workouts, retail therapy, or a couple glasses of wine.
But here’s the thing: these quick fixes are temporary. In order to manage stress over the long-term, you need to build your resilience.
The Relationship Between Stress and Resilience
Stress isn’t something that’s just in your mind. It’s a complex physiological process, a cascade of events that takes place in your body and brain.
When you encounter a stressor, your sympathetic nervous system switches on, activating your fight-or-flight mode. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood your bloodstream. Your heart races. Your pupils dilate. Your breathing becomes shallow. Your body’s response is the same whether the trigger is an upcoming job interview or a mountain lion chasing you on a hiking trail.
How you react to stress—and how much stress affects you—varies from individual to individual. Those who better manage major (or minor) crises are often called “resilient.” And while you may think of resilience as a shiny Teflon armor that deflects challenges, it’s more than just the ability to roll with the punches. There’s a resilience network inside your brain that helps you adapt positively to stress, trauma, and adversity.
How Resilience Helps You Respond to Stress
Your stress response is hard-wired in the deepest, more primal centers of your brain, like the amygdala and hippocampus. But it’s not just instincts at work. As you are exposed to more and more life experiences, you begin to create another set of circuits in the upper part of your brain. These circuits then override the drive of the primal centers.
“When you strengthen the connectivity between these centers, you can regulate the stress response quite well and you become more resilient towards adversity, says J. Leon Morales-Quezada, MD, PhD, research associate director at the Neuromodulation Center at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. At the same time, when your primal centers become overactive, your brain learns to tune it out.
Researchers have found that the insula is an important region of the brain responsible for how you respond to stress. Here, the brain gathers information about what’s going on in your body and what’s going on in the environment around you. Then, at a pre-conscious level, it takes this new information and combines it with prior experience to determine the best way to react to keep your body in balance.
What’s interesting is that the insula is more active in people with lower resilience. In situations of high stress, it works hard to figure out what’s going on. In people with high resilience, they intuitively have a better understanding of what’s going on inside their body and around them so can more efficiently determine the best way to respond to stress.
Take elite athletes, for example. In one study, researchers looked at how elite athletes responded to a stressful event compared to healthy participants who weren’t elite athletes. What they found was that the elite athletes performed better under stress compared to the control group. What’s more, the athletes showed lower activity in the insula both during the stressful event and afterward. Athletes not only had a lower stress response, they also recovered faster compared to the control group. It makes sense—As a whole, elite athletes are a high-resilience group, as they are trained to pay attention to and respond to their body’s cues.
How to Build Your Resilience
While we all may not be elite athletes, the good news is that anyone can get better at responding to stress.
“You want a good, efficient connection between the higher centers of the brain and the primal centers of the brain,” says Morales-Quezada. Just like strength training builds muscles, you can train the neural networks associated with resilience to work better together. Every time you intentionally exercise this network, it reinforces these connections. When these connections are strong, your intrinsic ability to respond to stressful situations increases.
There are a few ways you can train your resilience network. Meditation and mindfulness training, in particular, are powerful tools to train the mind to be less reactive and to stay in the present moment. As you become more attuned to what’s happening in your body, you’re better able to pick up on the small shifts and changes that occur, improving your response to stress. Similarly, practices like yoga, dancing, climbing, and box breathing can help improve the mind-body connection.
Interestingly, researchers have recently found that affective touch can also reinforce your resilience networks. Affective touch is the physical touch you see between parents and children or between relationship partners. This slow, gentle stimulation activates the sensory neuron endings found in hairy skin. It turns out these nerves wire directly into the insula. Stirring up these touch receptors can help strengthen the neural connections in the brain associated with your resilience network.
So, if you find that stress turns you into a ball of panic, don’t worry. You’re not doomed to react this way forever. By training up your resilience network, you can change how you react to stressful situations, big or small, in the long-term.