Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or the new year, this can be a time of both joy and sorrow, endings and beginnings. And stress. Even if you’re in a good place in your life, there’s bound to be stress. You might need to navigate bad weather, difficult relationships, or juggling too much to do at work and home. When besieged by stress during the holidays, or any time of year, there are things you can do to boost your stress resilience. Your character strengths can help.
What is Stress Resilience?
The symptoms of life’s daily stressors – a racing heart, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating – can trigger anxiety or fear. Most of us think of stress as the enemy because we’re afraid of its harmful effects on our bodies and minds. But studies have shown that we have everything we need to benefit from stress and in fact become stress resilient.
I’m not talking about long-term stress due to traumatic experiences. Chronic stress can increase the risk of illness, depression, and even death. If you’re suffering from chronic stress, know that this article is only a starting point and isn’t meant to replace other helpful options, like seeking professional help.
Resilience is about responding to adversity in healthful ways. Not everyone who encounters adversity is harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally by the experience. No two people respond to the same stressful situation in the same way. Those who fare better may be more stress resilient, which is about choosing a response that is beneficial, not harmful.
Kelly McGonigal, Stanford lecturer and stress expert, says that the harmful effects of stress aren’t inevitable as she and other experts once thought they were. In her 2014 TED talk How To Make Stress Your Friend, she discusses how to change the body’s response to stress.
In other words, instead of working to rid yourself of stress you can practice responding to it differently. This isn’t meant to be a quick fix, but with practice you can learn to respond in healthier ways.
Two Ways to Respond Differently
#1 – Shift Your Beliefs and Thoughts About Stress
If you believe stress is the enemy, this message is especially for you. Studies have shown that if you believe stress is harmful, it probably will be. You might interpret physical changes – your heart pounding, rapid breathing, increased sweating – as signs of stress or anxiety. Although this is a natural response to stress, it can lead to an unproductive downward spiral of negative thinking and actions.
Instead, what if you could change that response to one that’s more accurate and helpful? If you begin to understand that the body is actually preparing you for the challenge you’re facing, you can change the way you think and feel about stress, and the body is likely to follow.
Where do character strengths fit in? For starters, engage Love of Learning, a wisdom strength, to help you understand what happens physically when the body is under stress. For instance:
- Your body’s natural response is to release adrenaline, a stress hormone that initiates physical changes like increasing the heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen flow. It kicks the body’s systems into high gear.
- These physical changes help ensure that more oxygen is getting to the brain and other organs.
- Your energy level increases, preparing you to take action and rise to whatever challenge you face.
Below are other ways your character strengths can help you practice choosing how you respond to stress:
- Use Self-Regulation to notice and name the signs of stress as they’re occurring – the racing heart, the sweating, rapid breathing. Remind yourself that your body is preparing you to rise to the challenge.
- Use your other wisdom strengths to learn more about what’s going on around and within you. Use your Creativity and Curiosity to personify the stress and ask yourself: What is this stress telling me to do? Or not do? Use Perspective to take a wider view of the situation and Judgment to think critically about what’s happening.
Your top strengths might be even more helpful than the ones I’m naming but engaging them when under stress might seem like a stretch. If you’d like help unpacking this, please contact me. I love helping people use their strengths to boost stress resilience!
#2 – Connect With Others
In addition to adrenaline, there’s a lesser-known hormone that’s also part of the stress response: oxytocin. Oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory that may help regulate fear and anxiety. Oxytocin is also known for its role in social bonding.
In a stressful situation, the release of oxytocin motivates you to seek social support. Below are a few simple actions you can take when under duress:
- Tell someone how you feel.
- Surround yourself with people who care about you.
- If you have an instinct to withdraw, try to resist it.
How can your character strengths help? Try tapping into any of the three humanity strengths that support strong relationships: Love, Kindness, and Social Intelligence. If any of these are your signature strengths, you might already be naturally engaging them.
If these are your middle or lower strengths, you can bring them forth at any time. Call a trusted friend or family member. Give, or ask for, a long hug. Allow yourself a form of Kindness you might not normally extend to yourself – time to read a good book or a meal out with a friend.
In addition to the humanity strengths, perhaps the courage strengths would help you connect with others. Persevering through difficult conversations can help you connect with others despite the anxiety or fear you might be feeling. Zest can activate the energy you need to stay engaged. Brave actions you’ve taken in the past might inform what you do in the present situation. Honesty might help you to feel more open and real rather than self-conscious.
In stressful situations, you are the best person to Judge which of your strengths will be most helpful. If that seems unclear or overwhelming, we can begin to address this in a brief 1:1 coaching session.
Trust Yourself to Handle Life’s Challenges
McGonigal says that when you view stress in this way, you’re trusting yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.
We’ve been given the gift of having everything we need to care for ourselves and others, especially when under duress. In a season that seems full of bright lights and shiny objects, perhaps that is the biggest and best gift of all. Take good care during these holidays.
WISHING YOU MUCH STRESS RESILIENCE & JOY
THIS HOLIDAY SEASON!