Resilience may sound like a self-help buzzword, but it has tangible benefits for both mental and physical health
You’ve likely heard that chronic stress is bad for you. And while stress feels pretty terrible in the moment (trouble focusing, racing thoughts, irritableness, stomachache, and more), it’s not just a “feeling.” The effects of long-lasting stress have real consequences on our organs, hormones, and internal systems.
In short? Chronic stress and anxiety impact the physical body. When left untreated, it can contribute to serious long-term health problems. Fortunately, practicing resilience is just one part of a broader toolkit that can protect your brain and body. Here’s what resilience is, and why it matters so much to living a longer and healthier life.
What is resilience?
Resilience is the ability to adapt to difficult situations. It means being able to confront the daily stressors that we all experience–work deadlines, difficult coworkers, family arguments, financial worries–and not allowing those stressors to overwhelm you and cause you to shut down, lash out, or cope in unhealthy ways.
It’s important to know that resilience does not mean having a stress-free life. It’s not turning a blind eye to problems, covering up chronic issues, or being hopelessly optimistic at every turn. Rather, it’s leaning to deal with the stress that inevitably arrives in healthy, manageable ways.
The best part? Resilience may feel like an ingrained trait–some people are born resilient, others are not–but it can be practiced and made stronger just like a muscle.
How can resilience improve my health?
To understand how resilience can help protect your body, it’s important to know how a lack of resilience–being susceptible to chronic, low-grade stress–negatively impacts the body.
While stress responses are the body’s natural way of helping us navigate environmental and social threats, unmanaged stress can result in lasting inflammation that has severe long-term health effects. It’s related to visible changes in certain brain areas, a weakened immune system, autoimmune disorders, and even the development of diseases like diabetes and cancer.3
Other studies have supported the link between stress, depression, and heart disease. Did you know chronic stressors activate the immune system and cause persistent inflammation? The damage caused by this long-lasting inflammation results in both the development of depression and the progression of atherosclerosis, a condition that underlies heart disease.4
“Psychobiological studies provide growing evidence of how chronic low level stress ‘gets under the skin’ through the neuro-endocrine, cardiovascular and immune systems, influencing hormone release e.g. cortisol, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and inflammation.”1Dr. Lynne Friedli, World Health Organization
While the mechanisms that relate chronic stress with inflammation are still being studied, substantial evidence shows that his persistent inflammation plays a major role in the development of, and risk of dying from, dangerous chronic conditions.
How do I improve my resilience?
The good news is that building up your resilience is just like working out a muscle. Your resilience will get stronger the more time you dedicate to improving it.
The American Psychological Association recommends focusing on four core components to resiliency: connection, wellness, healthy thinking, and meaning.8
This can mean prioritizing relationships with friends and loved ones, especially if those loved ones have recently been pushed away due to chronic stress. Whether it’s a night out with a good friend or coffee with a family member, connecting with those close to us is a reminder that we’re not alone. And, those who care about our well-being can only provide support and empathy if we let them.
You might also consider joining a like-minded group in your area, whether it’s a shared hobby, charity organization, or faith-based community.
There have been numerous studies that show the relationship between physical activity and resilience.5,6,7 Getting regular exercise strengthens your body and teaches it to adapt to stress in healthy ways. When paired with better eating habits and ample sleep (healthy adults should strive for between seven to nine hours a night!), taking care of your physical body will make handling daily stress an easier time.
While habits like alcohol and drug use may feel good in the short-term, they’re only temporary fixes. And they end up making you feel worse in the long run, which exacerbates your stress. Instead, focus on improving your healthy habits one week at a time. This builds a foundation to better deal with stress, instead of trying to mask it for only a few hours.
In addition to practicing mindfulness (sitting with your thoughts for five to ten minutes at a time, without judgment or reaction), here are a few ways the APA recommends a more positive outlook:
- Keep things in perspective – remind yourself that many of the daily stresses you experience (like a bad meeting, a grumpy coworker, a fussy child) are temporary; they are manageable in the grand scheme of things and will likely not matter a week, a month, and a year from now
- Accept change – often, the elements of our lives that we feel are permanent (our jobs, where we live, our friends) end up not being so; learning to accept the changes that are beyond our control is key to building resilience and avoiding chronic stress
- Learn from your past – our most significant stresses are often a result of our own mistakes, which can make them feel especially powerful; instead of letting those mistakes dictate your present, reflect on what they’ve taught you about life and vow to work on them moving forward
Having larger goals in life can help both in having perspective and working toward self-improvement. If you don’t already, consider setting up realistic goals that might span the course of a week, a month, or a year. Whether it’s spending five minutes each day expressing gratitude, going on increasingly longer walks each week, or learning a new skillset that will help in your job. Having these “larger” achievements in mind can help you feel more focused and help you track your personal growth.
Your care team is here to support
And remember, if you’re an Everside Health member, your Everside provider is here to offer guidance and insight into practicing healthier habits. Whether you’d like to talk more about what resilience means, or you need help with chronic stress, your care team can work with you on a one-to-one basis and focus on elements like nutrition, exercise, and mental tooltips that keep chronic stress from running your life.
- Friedli, L., & World Health Organization. (2009). Mental health, resilience and inequalities (No. EU/08/5087203). Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe:.
- Mariotti A. (2015). The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future science OA, 1(3), FSO23. https://doi.org/10.4155/fso.15.21
- Miller, G. E., & Blackwell, E. (2006). Turning up the heat: Inflammation as a mechanism linking chronic stress, depression, and heart disease. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(6), 269-272.
- Moljord, I. E., Moksnes, U. K., Espnes, G. A., Hjemdal, O., & Eriksen, L. (2014). Physical activity, resilience, and depressive symptoms in adolescence. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 7(2), 79-85.
- Ozkara, A. B., Kalkavan, A., Alemdag, S., & Alemdag, C. (2016). The role of physical activity in psychological resilience. Baltic Journal of Sport and Health Sciences, 3(102).
- Hegberg, N. J., & Tone, E. B. (2015). Physical activity and stress resilience: Considering those at-risk for developing mental health problems. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 8, 1-7.
- Building your resilience (apa.org)