We all face stress — at home and work, in relationships or because of unexpected circumstances.
But did you know that how we react to stress can have immediate effects on our immune systems and lasting implications on our health and well-being?
It’s why building up resilience is crucial, said Bernadette Melnyk, chief wellness officer at The Ohio State University.
Melnyk and other Ohio State researchers teamed up with Everyday Health to study resilience. In a 2019 nationwide survey, they found that most Americans overestimate their ability to cope with life’s challenges, and less resilient people experience more depression and physical health problems.
Anxiety disorders affect one in three adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Depression is the leading cause of disability around the world, costing the U.S. economy $210 billion in lost productivity each year.
The good news is that resilience is like a muscle that you can train to be stronger. Grounded in research, Melnyk offers the following 10 tips for those looking to strengthen themselves in preparation for life’s challenges.
List all the ways you could improve on your mental, emotional and physical health, and then take action to make one small change at a time. It takes 30 to 60 days for a new health habit to stick, so be patient with yourself.
See yourself as in control.
Focus on how you, as opposed to external forces, can control the outcome of events. Try this four-step approach to solving problems:
- Identify the problem.
- Identify at least two ways to solve the problem with the pros and cons of each.
- Choose the best solution.
- Act on it right away.
If there is nothing you can do to solve a problem, consider helping someone else. You still have control over how you affect others, and that can boost your spirits.
Reframe negative thoughts.
Cognitive behavioral therapy experts tell us that how we think affects how we feel and behave. You can retrain your responses to difficulties in your life — both those in your memories and the difficulties you will face in the future. A positive outlook can help you to cope better.
Only 33% of Americans are likely to ask for help or counseling when faced with negative situations, according to The Ohio State University and Everyday Health’s 2019 State of Resilience.
Increase positive thinking.
Optimism can help you feel more in control of your circumstances.
When you feel stressed, anxious, depressed or angry, ask yourself: “What was just going through my mind?” and “Is this thinking helpful? Is it true? Do I have the evidence to back it up?” If the answer to these questions is no, turn the negative thinking around to positive to feel emotionally better.
It might seem difficult to suddenly become an optimist and see the bright side of things, especially if you are facing a rough patch in life. You do not have to sugarcoat things to be optimistic. Instead, focus on what you can do, and identify positive steps you can take to solve problems.
Evidence shows that when you believe in your ability to handle difficult situations, you will be able to handle them better.
Learn coping skills.
Find ways to release stress daily and learn techniques to reduce anxiety, such as deep breathing and meditation. Bringing yourself back to a calm place when you are stressed can keep tensions from overwhelming you in the long run.
Spend time with those you care about, and play — yes, grownups — with your children, pets or friends. Exercise boosts happiness, as does participation in activities and hobbies you enjoy.
The key component to all of these is consciously making time for them.
Make a daily routine of writing down three people or things you’re grateful for, and then dwell on the positive feelings that gratitude brings. Reflect on what’s going well in your life and how you contributed to it.
You have the power to drive positive emotions within.
Nurture your network.
Rely on family, friends and co-workers when needed, and continue to grow your social network.
Studies show that even “weak ties” — friendships that don’t go very deep — go far in bolstering our sense of well-being. Befriend more people by taking time to say hello, learning their names and spending a moment in friendly conversation. Reach out to people you’ve lost touch with, and get to know your neighbors.
Know your strengths and areas for improvement.
Positive psychology — the scientific study of what makes life worth living — focuses on identifying and building on our strengths.
Knowing what you do well and what stresses you out can help you deal with difficult situations and avoid things that might overwhelm you.
To find your strengths, make a list of some triumphs in your life and how you achieved them. Ask a few friends to list your strengths; you may be surprised at what they see in you.
Also, inventory the things that scare you or that you feel you need to improve. Then, make a plan for how you will deal with or improve them. Look at tough times as character-building experiences.
While most people surveyed believed that they have high levels of mental and physical resilience, only about 57% really do, according to the State of Resilience study from 2019.
Be here now.
Now is a great time to reconsider your interests and passions — and to take on a project or hobby that lets you exercise them. Allow yourself to become completely absorbed in the moment, doing something you love.
Mindfulness techniques such as meditation, yoga and Tai Chi also can help you ground yourself in the present moment. Take time to savor the beauty of nature, a piece of music or artwork that moves you. Slow down and savor some moments throughout the day.
Find purpose and passion in life.
When you are aligned with your dreams, you have the most energy. If you could have any dream that you could accomplish in the next five years, what would you do?
When you follow your north star, you have energy and you feel positive. Go after what you are passionate about and find meaning in life.
“Be patient with yourself,” Melnyk said of making new habits routine. “Inch by inch, it’s a cinch. Yard by yard, it’s hard.”
Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk is vice president for health promotion, university chief wellness officer, dean and professor in the College of Nursing, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry in the College of Medicine and executive director of the Helene Fuld Health Trust National Institute for Evidence-based Practice in Nursing and Healthcare.