How to build resilience to combat stress

Stress and resilience is hugely significant in person-focused roles such as health and social care. Senior Social Work Lecturer, Stephen Mordue, explores the three pillars of resilience and how we can make small changes in our lives to build resilience and combat stress.

When people talk about resilience they usually refer to it as ‘bouncing back’ from challenges and difficulties. I prefer a tree analogy. Trees are buffeted by the wind and bend with the flow of the current. They don’t resist being bent by the wind; they go with it. They wait out the storm and rely on their inner strength to see them through. That’s how I think of resilience.

We develop an inner strength that means when we are challenged by life, we are able to stay strong.

Resilience has three facets, three pillars, and they are all of equal importance. Frequently people talk about emotional resilience, and that is one of the pillars. In person facing professions the emotional impact of practice can be significant and needs to be managed.

Being emotionally resilient relies in part on the other two pillars, physical resilience and practical resilience. Practical resilience is about having systems in place that manage the throughput of life. Good diary management and having a way of controlling all the things you need to do is crucial.

Let me tell you more about physical resilience.

Physical resilience has three components; sleep, exercise, and nutrition.

In my opinion it is essential to start by getting your sleep right. It is estimated that 1 in 2 people are not getting sufficient sleep! Physically our body uses the time to recover and sleep has an essential role in the consolidation of memories. Sleeping less than six or seven hours regularly demolishes your immune system and increases your risk of physical health problems [from Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep’ (Page 3)].

There is also an emotional impact with Walker talking about how lack of sleep leads to a see-saw of emotions. Not simply low mood which leads to lack of motivation and procrastination but also heightened emotional states.

Here’s your ‘good sleep’ checklist.

  • Keep to a regular bedtime – having a routine will prepare you psychologically for sleep and will mean you don’t go to bed hyped
  • Do something that relaxes you – try yoga or mindful breathing
  • Be comfortable and create a ‘clean’ environment – the bedroom should be there for its intended purpose so no TV, no loud ticking clock and no clutter
  • Write ‘to do‘ lists for tomorrow to try and avoid the churn of thinking about what you have to do the next day
  • Sleep at regular times – sleeping between about 10/10.30 and 6/6.30 is in tune with your body’s natural rhythm 7 days a week

Next, sort out your nutrition. Your brain and gut are directly connected by the vagus nerve and have an impact on each other. In their entertaining podcast for Audible‘It Takes Guts’, Tim Anderson and Giles Yeo explore the impact of your gut biome (the bacteria in your gut) on your emotions and find there are significant connections. A lack of diversity in your gut biome, it is suggested, can lead to poor mental health. The research is clear that how you feel in your gut has an impact on how you feel mentally and, in terms of your resilience, how you feel mentally has a huge impact. If you feel low in mood, unmotivated, lacking drive, you are not going to get the best out of each and every day.

The following are really good at enhancing your gut biome:

Asparagus, bananas, berries, garlic, leeks, legumes (beans and peas), onions, fermented foods (sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, cheese, yoghurt), apples, bananas, barley, cocoa, garlic, green tea, oats, onions, and pistachios.

Get these things right and add in some exercise and you are on the way to building physical resilience. It doesn’t take much exercise either. Twenty to thirty minutes of gentle exercise every day is the government’s recommendation. Bristol University conducted research that showed that simply a twenty-minute walk at lunchtime boosted mood, productivity, and the ability to manage stress for the remainder of the day.

You’ll need to be organised. Plan it, and do it, and it will make a difference.

Small steps executed over a period of time can lead to big changes.

Read more from Stephen Mordue about the role of emotional resilience in more detail.