by Stacy Mosel, LMSW
Sometimes stress piles up. Life happens, and stress is inevitable. And when we become overwhelmed, this usually indicates that we need to take some time out to reflect, build stress resilience and develop better coping skills. Keep reading to learn about some of the best ways to handle stress and become more mentally resilient so you can not simply cope with what life throws your way, but thrive and live your best life.
Is All Stress Bad?
While we can’t eradicate stress from our daily lives — and we probably wouldn’t want to, anyway. Research has shown that we need a certain level of healthy stress — also known as “eustress” — in our lives to help us adapt to challenges, keep us motivated to move forward and help us achieve our goals.
Keep in mind there are two types of stress: acute and chronic. A daily dose of acute stress can be considered normal and even good. You do need a certain amount of stress to function and to feel motivated in your life. Meanwhile chronic, long-term stress is what we want to avoid. Eliminating all stress isn’t the answer, and let’s face it, it’s pretty much impossible to do that anyway. Instead, it’s about managing your acute stress in a healthy and adaptive way so it doesn’t evolve into a chronic problem.
How to Manage Stress
We hear about mindfulness everywhere nowadays, but what does it really mean and how can it help us manage and respond to stress in a healthier and more effective manner? According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, mindfulness means “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” It also means acceptance of “what is,” without fighting the flow or resisting what life is presenting to you at this very moment.
That might sound easier said than done but through dedication and consistent practice you can cultivate a healthier relationship with your inner and external worlds, which can help support a healthier stress response and may enhance your overall well-being as well. In fact, a meta-analysis of over 200 studies published in the Clinical Psychology Review found that mindfulness can be effective for reducing anxiety, depression and stress.
While different forms of mindfulness meditation have been practiced in Eastern traditions for thousands of years, it’s probably thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, that mindfulness first gained popularity in the West.
According to the clinical analysis published in the Clinical Psychology Review, mindfulness meditation has been scientifically proven to have numerous benefits, including improved stress resilience, increased well-being, and decreased psychological symptoms. You could take the eight-week MBSR course to immerse yourself in the concepts of the practice, or you could start a home practice by setting aside 30 minutes a day for at least six days a week to sit quietly, breathe, and observe your thoughts and experiences.
Supporting your Endocannabinoid System
It’s not for nothing that your body makes its own endocannabinoids, endogenous chemicals that studies have shown play an important role in stress resilience and helping you adapt to daily stress. Sometimes, especially during times of increased stress or tension, your body can benefit from extra support, which is where CBD products can lend a helping hand. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a non-psychoactive extract from the hemp plant that is thought to support the body's endocannabinoid system, which helps regulate your body's reaction to stressful moments.
We often overlook the practice of gratitude, instead saving it for special occasions like Thanksgiving, but giving thanks on a daily basis isn’t just about appreciating what you have, it’s also an important way to help you become more mentally resilient and better equipped to handle life challenges. A study published in the International Journal of Psychological Studies reports that higher levels of gratitude are associated with higher levels of overall life satisfaction and decreased stress. Try keeping a gratitude journal and writing down at least five things that you’re grateful for each day, or practice a guided gratitude meditation, which you can listen to on the Greater Good Science Center’s website.
How to Be More Resilient
You are what you eat – and think. Your ability to cope with stress can be influenced by your overall mental outlook, environment, sense of meaning in life and social connections, but also by what you eat (and what else you put into your body), and how you treat it. But it’s not just that “you are what you eat;” your thoughts and emotions become your biology as well. It likely goes without saying that eating a healthy diet, limiting sugar, alcohol and caffeine, as well as exercising regularly can all help decrease stress, but it’s also worth taking stock of your thoughts and beliefs to see how you might inadvertently be contributing to higher levels of stress over time.
A paper published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry explains that what you believe affects your tissues, and your thoughts have an impact on how you mentally and physically feel. Try noticing how often you automatically engage in judging, negative thinking, complaining or defeatist thought patterns and see if you can hit the pause button and ask yourself if what you’re thinking is really true. Then try to find an alternative, healthier thought or belief, a process known in cognitive psychology as cognitive restructuring. It can take time, but with dedication and persistence, you can develop a healthier, more positive mindset.
Spiritual practitioners and wisdom seekers have engaged in quiet reflection as a part of their informal meditation practices for centuries. Setting aside 10 to 15 minutes in the morning and evening to reflect on your day, connect with your body and mind, and simply “be” can help improve your stress resilience; it also gives your brain a chance to peacefully exist within chaos. As an article in the Harvard Business Review puts it, it helps you untangle and sort through observations and experiences to consider multiple possible interpretations and create meaning.
Ultimately, when you shift your focus to be less about trying to eradicate stress completely (an impossible feat) and more about how to manage your reaction to stress and how you bounce back, you may find yourself more equipped to handle unexpected situations and live a happier life.
Stacy Mosel, LMSW, is a licensed social worker and psychotherapist. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in music from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she continued her studies at New York University, earning a master of social work degree in 2002. She writes in the fields of mental health and holistic wellness, drawing on her prior experiences as an employee assistance program counselor, individual and family therapist and assistant director of a child and family services agency.
World Journal of Medical Sciences - “The Eustress Concept: Problems and Outlooks”
Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley - What is Mindfulness?
Clinical Psychology Review - “Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis”
Clinical Psychology Review - “Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies”
North American Journal of Medical Sciences - “Mindfulness-based stress reduction: a non-pharmacological approach for chronic illnesses”
Behaviour Research & Therapy - “Home practice in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: A systematic review and meta-analysis of participants' mindfulness practice and its association with outcomes”
Harvard Business Review - Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection (Even If You Hate Doing It)
International Journal of Psychological Studies - “Gratitude and Life Satisfaction: Mediating Role of Perceived Stress”
Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley - Gratitude Meditation
Michigan Medicine – University of Michigan - Healthy Eating to Decrease Stress
Indian Journal of Psychiatry - “The biochemistry of belief”
Wiley Online Library - “Cognitive Restructuring: Part One. General Strategies”
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Journal of Chemical Neuroanatomy - “Emerging evidence for the antidepressant effect of cannabidiol and the underlying molecular mechanisms”