How to build your resilience to emotional stress

We all experience stress at various points in our lives. Here's how to recognise it and build the resilience needed to face it.

While we do need a certain level of stress in our lives, if we face continuous challenges or ‘stressors’ without relief, then stress can build up and become negative. This can lead to a condition called distress – a negative stress reaction.

This type of stress can significantly impact our lifestyle and emotional wellbeing. Everyone will experience stress differently, but there are certain signs and symptoms to look out for when it comes to identifying emotional stress.

Identifying stress

Changes in behaviour

As you find things becoming more stressful, you may notice changes in your behaviour. This can include constant irritability with family members, friends or colleagues, or finding it difficult to concentrate and stay focused at work. You may also feel demotivated and unable to cope with day-to-day tasks, or experience a lack of interest in doing the things you once enjoyed.

Emotional impact

Stress can also play out in your emotions. This can result in recurring feelings of worry, anxiety, self-doubt, frustration and being overwhelmed. You might feel a bit lost or without purpose in life and even find yourself over or under eating. Any of these emotional responses can consume a large part of your energy, dull day-to-day experiences and impact our personal and professional lives.

For some other common indicators that you may be experiencing stress, see our article on the 10 tell-tale stress symptoms.

How stress affects the brain and body

Stress is a very personal matter, in that it relies on our own perceptions, but put simply, stress is when a situation, pressure or change exceeds our coping abilities.

Take a rollercoaster ride for example. You might have two people that go on a rollercoaster together - one person may take genuine enjoyment from the experience. The other may experience genuine fear or anxiety. The rollercoaster itself doesn't change but our perceptions of it will differ. The same can be said for other stressful situations.

Of course, this example is just short-term stress, which in isolation may not cause us any harm at all. It's only when stress accumulates and exceeds our coping ability without adequate recovery that it becomes a problem. Stress is likely to occur after a build-up of life-changing events that can be either positive or negative. They could include a business realignment, a promotion or even something enjoyable such as a holiday. What matters is that there is a change to your normal routine.

We all know that stress can make us feel upset, agitated and sometimes overwhelmed. The question is how does stress affect our body and our mind, and what can we do about it?

The physiological effect of stress

Within your central nervous system (your brain and spine) you have the autonomic system, which controls all of the processes that you do without thinking, such as breathing, digestion and your heartbeat. Within the autonomic system there are two systems of interest, which work in tandem with each other. These are the sympathetic system, known as the ‘fight or flight’ system and the parasympathetic system, or the ‘rest and digest’ system.

The sympathetic system is responsible for increasing heart rate, increasing blood pressure and increasing blood sugar to help you to perform when stress hits. When you're stressed, this system triggers these necessary responses, and the function of your rest and digest system is reduced. The parasympathetic system is responsible for suppressing heart rate and bringing you back down to homeostasis.

Another hormone released when we are stressed is cortisol. Cortisol is an energising hormone which increases the level of blood sugar. This is great in the short term to provide energy to react quickly, but in the long term it can be bad for the immune system as DHEA, which supports our immune system and is also released by the adrenal glands, can’t be released when cortisol is released.

Excess release of cortisol over a long period of time can also lead to increased risk of strokes and heart attacks. When blood sugar levels are raised it can lead to inflammation of artery walls and this damage can cause the immune system to respond, leading to a build-up of fatty deposits which can block the arteries. If some of this build up breaks away and is released into the bloodstream then it can block smaller arteries that lead into your brain or heart.

Stress can also limit our ability to think clearly. When we are stressed our ‘amygdala’ labels information coming into the brain as threatening and, at the same time, limits activity in the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that allows us to think strategically. This reduces our ability to make decisions, be sociable and take on new ideas and information. As a result, you may act in ways that you might later regret.

Strategies for coping with stress and building resilience

The good news is, by taking active steps to look after our health and wellbeing we can learn to reduce the impact of stress on our life by managing external pressures and developing our emotional resilience – the ability to adapt and bounce back during times of change and adversity.

Here are the top eight strategies to help combat stress and build this resilience.

  • 1. Work-life balance

    Maintaining a good work-life balance is essential to resilience. When we make time for ourselves and to do the things we enjoy we're more productive in all areas of our lives. It's important to take regular breaks at work, have lunch away from the desk and leave the office at an appropriate time each day.

    Taking breaks at work also helps with another key action for resilience – exercise. Regular moderate exercise helps to break down stress hormones and promote the release of mood enhancing hormones, helping to reduce tension.

  • 2. Walking it off

    This brings us to our next strategy. It might sound too simple to be true, but you can walk off stress. Here’s how it works.

    The rest and digest system
    Exercises that focus on muscle tension and deep breathing, such as walking, activate the parasympathetic system in your body. It's also known as the ‘rest and digest system’ because it's responsible for lowering your heart rate and helping your body to relax.

    It's the opposite of the sympathetic system or ‘fight or flight system’, which increases heart rate, blood sugar and blood pressure to help you respond when stress hits.

    When it comes to reducing stress, the clue is in the name. You want to rest and digest, not fight or run away.

    Walk, don’t run
    When you do high-intensity exercises, such as sprints or a combat class, your body needs to kick things up a notch and so activates the fight or flight system. While the endorphin release may make you feel better in the short-term, it isn’t the stress-relieving activity that you might expect it to be.

    Taking a gentle walk outside can be a much more effective method of stress relief. A 20-30 minute walk can release enough endorphins to help you feel relaxed and in control, without straying into the fight or flight zone. A walk in nature or an area you are particularly fond of can further boost positive feelings and help stress begin to dissipate. In addition, deciding to take a walk can also be helpful by removing you from a stressful situation for a short time.

    Longer term, maintaining a fitness routine, particularly one featuring aerobic exercises, can improve your overall ability to manage your heart rate and behaviour the next time you feel stressed. For more information, see our article on combating stress with exercise.

  • 3. Good quality rest

    Rest is just as important as physical activity. Sleep is our body’s chance to recharge, without it we feel less productive, have lower energy levels and poor concentration. So try to get between seven and eight hours of good quality sleep each night.

  • 4. Don't look to substances to unwind

    There are some other lifestyle considerations that can impact on your stress levels. Ingesting caffeine, alcohol and nicotine all increase the activation of the fight or flight system and can also interfere with getting good quality sleep. So smoking and drinking wine are not the destressors that people may think they are. The after-effects of heavy drinking or drug use can also linger for a long time and seriously impair our ability to handle stressful situations.

    The higher levels of cortisol which stress can cause have also been linked to increased appetite. This means that when you’re stressed, you may find yourself overeating, particularly on unhealthier ‘comfort’ foods high in sugar or fat, which can have wider negative effects on your physical and mental health. For advice on how nutrition can play a positive role in managing stress, see our article on diet tips to combat stress and anxiety.

  • 5. Mindfulness

    Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to the present moment. Stress and anxiety are often caused by focusing too much on past events or worrying too much about the future, both of which are out of our control. Similarly, trying to focus on too many things at once can easily overwhelm us.

    By using techniques such as meditation, focused breathing exercises and yoga, we can help to manage our attention and emotions in a more efficient way and get back to feeling our best. The underlying key to mindfulness is focusing and savouring the present moment. We have a range of videos on Nuffield Health 24/7 to support you with your emotional wellbeing.

    Small pleasures
    Research has found that people with excellent emotional wellbeing consistently take more time to do this, savouring moments like listening to their child laugh at a joke or watching a beautiful sunset. This boosts their happiness and in turn improves their resilience - the ability to 'bounce back' from a stressful situation. This then leads to increased life satisfaction, which leads to more opportunities to savour small pleasures, which then leads to more happiness. It's a happiness cycle.

    But how do we start this cycle, and what does it mean to notice or savour small pleasures? It’s all about focusing on one activity at a time.

    Engage fully in what you’re doing
    Stop for a moment and do just one thing, for instance, close the laptop and focus solely on eating a sandwich.

    Notice the feel of the sandwich in your hand. Feel its weight, size and texture. Notice how it feels against your lips and how it smells. How does it feel as your teeth bite into it? What about the filling? How does it feel in your mouth? Where on your tongue is the taste? Are there different tastes on different parts of your tongue? Is it hot or cold? Spicy or sweet?

    Use as many senses as possible to really notice the activity as if you were doing it for the first time and are required to explain it to someone afterwards.

    Enjoy the activity as if it's the last time you’ll experience it. Research has shown that thinking about an experience as temporary, or as something that will come to an end will increase the enjoyment of it.

    Positive memories
    You don’t just have to savour positives in the present. While stress can often be triggered by fixating too much on past negative events, psychological research shows that thinking about past positive events like the birth of a child, your first date or finishing a marathon can increase happiness. Reminiscing like this with family or friends about past events, particularly where you shared laughter, also results in improved relationship satisfaction.

    Mind games
    Challenging ourselves mentally can help to make us feel more positive too. Exercising our minds encourages the growth of new cells, keeping our minds healthy. So stimulating our brains with activities such as puzzles and crosswords or learning a new hobby or skill can help to boost mental fitness, as well as giving us something present to focus our attention on.

  • 6. Talking about it

    When it comes to stress, many people overlook the simple strategy of talking. Here’s how it can help you to reduce stress and improve your health and wellbeing.

    Build healthy relationships
    Social interaction is important for mental health and wellbeing. Talking to friends, family and colleagues can help to build strong relationships and develop trust. With strong relationships, you may feel more comfortable talking about how you feel more regularly. Feeling isolated or not having the opportunity to talk regularly to others can affect mental wellbeing.

    Gain perspective
    People who aren’t involved in a particular situation or problem can approach it with a fresh perspective. Stress can cloud your ability to see solutions that might seem obvious to an outsider. Talking to someone - whether it is a friend, colleague or trained professional - may help you to gain perspective and have a positive impact on your stress levels.

  • 7. Find your triggers

    Conversations with other people can also help us to recognise triggers that may be affecting our stress levels. We all perceive and react to situations in different ways. It could be your individual reaction to an event that may be affecting how stressed you feel.

    Talking to friends and colleagues may help you to understand how other people react in the same situation. Talking to trained professionals may help you understand how your responses are linked to particular thought patterns and emotions.

  • 8. Manage your behaviour

    How you cope with stress can affect your behaviour towards things like diet, exercise, alcohol and drug use, caffeine and smoking. All of which can have a negative effect on your health and wellbeing long term. In addition, how we react or behave when we are under pressure doesn’t just have an impact on ourselves, but may also affect friends, family and colleagues.

    Be kind
    This is why it can be helpful to not only try and boost your own positive feelings, but also those of the people around you. In the same way that we can use mindfulness to better perceive the positives in our own lives, doing something kind for someone else, no matter how small, can often clear tensions and lift everyone’s mood, including your own.

Talk to a therapist

If you'd like further advice you can book a call with one of our therapists at a time and date that is convenient for you by using the calendar below. A therapist will help you to understand why you feel like you do, give you time to explore your concerns, answer any questions you have, and if further therapy is required, will discuss with you what approach is right for you to enable you to feel better. If you choose to continue with therapy we can then arrange the support that you need with one of our mental health professionals. Your call will last approximately 30 minutes.

Last updated Thursday 28 October 2021

First published on Friday 8 July 2016