How To Improve Your Resilience To Stress

Researchers have found that stress can increase your risk of death, but that’s far from the whole story.

How To Improve Your Resilience To Stress
[Photo: Flickr user Doctor Popular]

Which of the following statements about stress do you believe?

  1. Stress is harmful to my health and well-being
  2. Stress is helpful to my health and well-being

If you agree with statement No. 1, you’re like most people I’ve surveyed. Stress is something we’ve come to see as a negative influence. Reporting on a study by Harvard and Stanford researchers, the Washington Post ran the headline, “Your Job Is Literally ‘Killing’ You.” Researchers found that 10 different workplace stressors–including low “job control,” high “job demand,” unemployment, and lack of high-quality work relationships–contribute to more than 120,000 deaths each year and $190 billion in health care costs.

While that news may make you want to stay home in your pajamas all day or escape to a beach in Hawaii and never return, the truth is that these studies, while useful, don’t tell the whole story about work-related stress. In fact, with a little effort, you can use the experience of stress–which many of us have in ample supply–in order to build up your resilience to it and even grow in other ways.

Stress On The Mind

A 1998 study surveyed nearly 29,000 adults and asked them two questions:

  1. How much stress did you experience in the last year?
  2. Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?

Eight years later, the researchers checked to see whether stress impacted the participants’ mortality rates. They discovered that those with high levels of stress were only more likely to die if they also believed that stress was harming their health. The people with high levels of reported stress who didn’t believe their stress was hurting them actually had the lowest risk of death of any group in the study.

That insight is a great starting point for reframing how many of us think about stress. No, stress isn’t a fantasy–it’s real, and it isn’t going away. But the psychological research around resilience might have something new to teach us about coping with stress. With that in mind, here are three stress resilience strategies to try out.

1. Convert Your Inner Critic Into A Coach

This Mark Twain quotation may be apocryphal, but it’s become popular because of how well so many of us can relate to it:


I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.

Everyone has an inner critic–loud, unrelenting, and with us throughout our entire lifetimes. But that’s all the more reason to develop skills to counterbalance that voice. Being a flexible, accurate, and thorough thinker–especially while under stress–is a key skill when it comes to resilience.

Try this: Think it through. Many of us tend to “catastrophize” when we’re stressed out, imagining things are worse than they are. Psychologists have developed cognitive behavioral therapy as a system for helping us cope with that and other mental habits. This book is a helpful road map for becoming more aware of your stress responses and identifying patterns (both productive and counterproductive) in your thinking so you can better control your reactions to them.

Here are a few ways to start turning your inner critic into a personal coach:

  1. Write down the stress-producing event and describe it factually (who, what, where, when, and how).
  2. Capture all of your heat-of-the-moment thoughts. What’s the very first thing that popped into your head about the cause of the event–whether or not that’s objectively “true”?
  3. List the corresponding emotions and reactions you experienced during and after the event.
  4. Now reflect. Are those reactions helping you through the stressful experience or keeping you stuck in it? If your stress-response is counterproductive, the next strategy is for you.

2. Practice Safe Stress

Increase your diet of positive emotions. Go out in search of activities, experiences, and environments that induce a sense of calm and well-being. That could be a mindfulness exercise, for example–or even exercise itself.


Try this: Getting past counterproductive stress responses isn’t easy, but you can develop a mind-set that puts those reactions to work for you in better ways. Try this three-step process, developed by psychologist Alia Crum, whenever you feel stressed:

  1. Acknowledge stress when you experience it. Notice how and where it impacts you physically.
  2. Recognize that the stress response is linked to something you care about. What is at stake in this situation, and why does it matter to you?
  3. Make use of the heightened energy and focus that stress gives you.

3. Look For More Meaning, More Often

Stress is related to the ways and reasons that we decide which experiences are meaningful to us. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains that high levels of stress are often associated with well-being, and she points out that happy lives aren’t generally stress-free. Higher levels of stress are typically found in tandem the with things we want in life–health, love, and meaning. Without stress, we may not even want those positive things as much, or value them as highly as we do.

Try this: McGonigal suggests a simple exercise. Think about what brings meaning to your life. Is it friends and family? The educational or professional opportunities available to you? Volunteer work you enjoy? Your health? Take a few minutes to list your most meaningful roles, relationships, goals, and activities. It sounds simple, but that’s rarely something we take time to do.

Then look at your list and see if you’d describe any of the items on it as stressful. If something on that list is both a source of meaning and stress, write about why that thing is so important to you. Chances are you’ll see how the stressful component can’t be so easily divorced from the meaningful part, and you may even begin to view stress itself a bit more favorably.


Paula Davis-Laack is a speaker, lawyer, and expert on work-related stress, burnout, and resilience. Follow her on Twitter at @pauladavislaack.