Functional, complementary, and integrative medicine are rooted in the belief that our physical and mental health are undeniably intertwined. In our clinic, we understand that our bodies are always talking to our brains, and our brains are always talking to our bodies. Everything is connected. It’s important that I treat my patients in a holistic way, giving both the body and mind my full attention.
If the circumstances of your life are forcing you to exist in a constant stress state, this is likely placing immense strain on both your body and mind. When we are stuck in a state of overwhelm and chaos, it can be challenging to know exactly what to do about the impact of daily stress on our health.
Health psychologist and director of the Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Center at the University of California, Elissa Epel, recently wrote a book called The Stress Prescription that addresses this dilemma. Her book explains the value of embracing stress and being strategic with stress management, instead of eliminating stressors altogether. Dealing with stressors intrinsically helps us build emotional, cognitive, and physical resilience.
Epel’s analysis explains that stress itself isn’t an inherently negative part of our lives on its own; it’s neutral. It is our mental response to increased stress that limits us. If given the right mental and habit building toolkit, we can learn to coexist with our stressors in a healthy way, like a friendly nemesis next door instead of the token villain. This is called stress resilience.
What Does it Mean to Become Stress Resilient?
Becoming stress resilient means learning to recognize and acknowledge painful or difficult situations as they arise and adopting helpful mechanisms to work through them, not fight them. It also means learning to lean into our adaptive stress responses and build up healthy cells that can fight back against panic and anxiety. Building stress resilience isn’t something that happens overnight.
Learning to manage stress well takes practice, time, and inner grace. You have to develop an awareness of your own internal stressors and triggers before working through them. Once you’re able to take time to identify how to work alongside your stressors, you will become more free of negative mental and physical repercussions.
There’s a metaphor I personally love from Dr. Russ Harris, therapist and author of The Happiness Trap, that describes our emotions, stresses, joys, and neutralities like sushi moving along a conveyor belt at a restaurant. Harris encourages his patients to learn the habit of watching and observing their personal sushi tray of inner emotions without becoming stressed or upset about the presence of these thoughts or feelings. Observing and recognizing your own thoughts, stresses, and emotions for what they are without allowing them to control what you do is one way to become stress resilient.
It is helpful to observe our stressors. However, it is equally important to recognize that a stressor has a physiologic consequence in our bodies. Sometimes taking a pause and noticing what sensations or perceptions you are experiencing can help you become more familiar with your own stress patterns. You can then begin to release them, integrate them, understand them, and grow from them.
Additionally, there is a surplus of data surrounding the value of using body-based tools to build stress resilience. Body-based tools are tools that can help us deal with difficult emotions and circumstances. Physical exercise is a good example of a body-based tool which extends us into a state of hormesis, or a physiological hardening that leaves our muscles and vasculature stronger.
Harness Adaptive Stresses to Improve Your Stress Resilience
Working with our adaptive stressors can actually strengthen you on a cellular level. One study conducted by doctors Simone Fulda, Adrienne M. Gorman, Osamu Hori, and Afshin Samali analyzes cell regeneration after the brain perceives a trigger or stressor. These scholars found that cells respond to stress in different ways. These responses can range from the activation of pathways that promote survival to inducing programmed cell death that will eliminate damaged cells. This means that our minds actually maintain the pre-programmed ability to revitalize our neurons after we experience threat.
An additional study was conducted by doctors Ladan Mansouri, Yufen Xie, and Daniel A Rappolee that observes the specifics of our cellular adaptive and pathogenic responses to external stress. This study concluded that, like many aspects of the neuroscience world, our cellular stress response is a highly complex system set which involves a variety of different cellular functions responding to stressful stimuli. What was most fascinating to me about this study is that it explains the way that cells synthesize during times of stress. Our cells respond to stress in two waves. A first set of adaptive cell responses to stress decreases the body's natural macromolecular syntheses; it decreases normal proteins, RNA, fatty acids, and DNA during stress. This first response is our initial fight or flight.
After this primary adaptive response, a second set of adaptive cellular responses (homeostasis responses) get to work in our bodies. This second wave is specific to the kind of stressor that is active, and its onset is slower than the first wave. The goal of the second wave of cellular regeneration is to reestablish homeostasis after our healthy cells survive the initial period of stress and panic. Our internal cell responses to outside environmental stressors can be considered a homeostasis and cell-repair response that is specific to those stressors, but that incorporates signaling pathways shared between multiple stressors.
What’s worth noting about this process is that the cells of two people who experience the exact same kind of stressor will respond with different regenerative speeds, strengths, and their overall ability to regain a sense of calm and safety. Why is this important to our daily lives? This teaches us that we have much more power over our stress responses than we might imagine. The habits we partake in and the types of stimuli we expose our bodies and minds to can actually adjust our adaptive stress response and harden our cells, allowing us to become better at “coming down” or “cooling off” after intense moments of stress, fear, and upset.
We monitor our recovery time after physical exercise as a sign of good physical health. In this same way, we ought to look at recovery time after a stress response to our nervous system as a sign of good mental health. Understanding the role of the vagus nerve and Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory gives us a strong template for building our stress resilience. The ventral portion of the vagus nerve, also known as the social engagement system, can be engaged to help us feel safe through warm and comforting social connection.
Image Citation: Mansouri, L., Xie, Y., & Rappolee, D. (2012). Adaptive and Pathogenic Responses to Stress by Stem Cells during Development. Cells, 1(4), 1197–1224. https://doi.org/10.3390/cells1041197
Recognize Your Body’s Stress Response and Work With it, Not Against it
Our bodies and minds are always communicating. Learning to recognize the specific stress responses that your body and mind engage in can help you learn to work with your stress, not against it. Awareness is the first step to working with stress. If we recognize our sweaty hands, shaking fingers, or darting eyes as an additional threat on top of the threat we are already encountering, we’ll enter an endless loop of stress and panic before we know it. However, I understand the physiologic cues received are not always within our control and deserve to be tended to with care.
To help with this, we can then dip into our stress resilience tool kit and pick a soothing tool that works best for you personally. The tools that work best to evoke calm are different for everyone. In my own life, walking alone on the trail, having a cold water plunge, pairing my daily yoga practice with a good breathing tool, or asking for help from a friend or colleague helps to settle my nervous system and get me out of acute stress. It’s most valuable to consider which tools you have available to you to aid you in your own personal times of distress.
The body makes requests of us by giving us cues and signals, it does not make declarations about our worth! Instead of beating yourself up and becoming more anxious over your body’s natural response, work with your body’s internal signals. Ask yourself what your body and mind are asking of you to truly become regulated. You may notice that there’s a recognizable pattern to things that upset you. It may be worth doing a little bit of digging into your pasta and observing the commonalities of the things that distress you.
In Epel’s book, she suggests that there is power in facing your stress response with positivity and using it to motivate your next move. When you feel the panic begin to rise, ask yourself:
“What is my body trying to tell me by reacting this way?”
“What needs do my body and mind have right now that are not being met?”
“What things or people can I change in my current surroundings to give my body what it’s asking for?”
What are The Best Habits to Build a Stress Resilient Mind?
If you’re ready to work on regulating your nervous system and increasing your personal cellular stress resilience, consider integrating these core habits into your daily routine. In my 30 years of research and working with patients, I have found that the habits that increase happiness often build both stress resilience and brain health. It’s important to identify the habits that come most naturally to you. The best habits you can build are always the ones that last.
Lifelong Habits for Building Stress Resilience, Longevity, and Cellular Health:
Spend as much time in nature as possible. If you don’t have any forests around you, find a park or a nearby tree. Spend time listening to the sound of birds and gazing at the sky above. I do this daily to become truly grounded.
Get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. If you have sleep apnea, make sure you tend to it, and ask your doctor about it if you don’t know what it is.
Take time each day to meditate, rest, restore, and practice yoga.
Eat nutrient rich meals.
Try to space out your eating and take the time to fast on occasion.
Spend intentional time with others. Take notice of who you feel genuinely comfortable with, and who you feel uncomfortable or unsafe around. Engage in positive relationships.
Set time aside for activities that increase your personal pleasure and delight. If it feels difficult to ever feel joy, or are too nervous to drive any satisfaction from life, please ask for help from a psychologist, psychotherapist, doctor, or loving friend.
Make an active effort to face your fears gently or do tasks that challenge you emotionally. For example, try sharing a vulnerability or asking for help from someone you trust.
Use your executive functioning frequently. This could look like making a to-do list or using tangible strategies that organize your thinking.
Create time for intentional movement. This could be as simple as shaking your arms and legs while alone in your bedroom, or soothing and hugging yourself when you feel sad.
Participate in creative outlets like music and art.
Make peace with your past. Think about the relationships in your life that feel broken or bruised and pay a bit of attention to healing them or making peace with what happened.
Epel, E. (2022). The Stress Prescription. Penguin.
Fulda, S., Gorman, A. M., Hori, O., & Samali, A. (2010). Cellular Stress Responses: Cell Survival and Cell Death. International Journal of Cell Biology, 2010(214074), 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1155/2010/214074
Harris, R., & Hayes, S. (2008). The Happiness Trap. Robinson.
Mansouri, L., Xie, Y., & Rappolee, D. (2012). Adaptive and Pathogenic Responses to Stress by Stem Cells during Development. Cells, 1(4), 1197–1224. https://doi.org/10.3390/cells1041197
Porges, S. W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 76(Suppl_2), S86–S90. https://doi.org/10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17
Sivadas, A., & Broadie, K. (2020). How Does My Brain Communicate With My Body? Frontiers for Young Minds, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/frym.2020.540970