Last month I had the privilege of running a workshop for doctors training to become General Practitioners. It was great fun and while I was the trainer/facilitator, I learned an awful lot about what it was like to walk in their shoes. We touched on various topics including time management and team working and we spent some time looking at stress management and resilience. In the light of staff shortages and an ageing population, there has never been a time when managing stress well was so crucial as now. But one cannot really talk about stress management without also looking at building resilience. Without resilience, it is near impossible to manage stress well. While different people have different stressors and handle stress differently, one thing is common to all – stress can have negative effects on ones emotional, mental and physical health.

Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – the body’s defences react through an automatic response known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response. The body’s stress response is its way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused and energetic, and alerts you in emergency or dangerous situations. The stress response can also help you rise to meet challenges that you may face.

Stress is what keeps you alert at an interview, sharpens your concentration during an examination or presentation, or keeps you longer at work to finish a project instead of procrastinating. Most people have an optimum level of stress that they can cope with beyond which stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to their health, mood, productivity, relationships, and their quality of life as a whole. This latter is bad stress.

For most of us, stress builds up over time and we don’t realise that we are stressed until things come to a head and something significant happens. It’s a bit like blowing a gasket where there might have been a problem that developed over time and generally goes unnoticed until ‘wham’! We can learn to recognise the signs of stress and do something about it before we reach that blow up point or even better, we can learn to reduce the stress in our lives on a continual basis so that we never ever get to the point where we feel overwhelmed. A major determinant of how an individual copes with stress is their resilience.

 Resilience is defined as the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity. In my own words, resilience is the ability to bend without breaking. It explains how two people can go through exactly the same challenges and come out differently at the other end. While one person may go through a nervous breakdown, the other comes out seemingly unscathed. It is necessary for success in work, business or your personal life. Resilience is not just something you are born with, but a trait that you can develop other time.

There are several ways of increasing your resilience and the benefits of doing this include recovering quicker from setbacks, becoming less susceptible to stressors in your life and developing the ability to turn challenges into opportunities. Here are a few helpful ways you can build your resilience:

  1. Acknowledge the challenge – don’t try to ignore what’s happening. Verbalising the problem or stressor goes a long way in reducing its bite.
  2. Tell your story – a problem shared really is a problem halved. Talking about what you are facing to an empathetic, wise friend, colleague or partner will help you put things in perspective. They might even have some words of advice that will help you solve the problems.
  3. Change your self-talk – Cognitive behavioural therapists help their clients change their negative self-talk because it has been shown that this has a direct impact on your feelings and subsequently your well-being. If your self-talk is very pessimistic and self-depreciating then change it to one that is more optimistic.
  4. Learn to tune into positive emotions – this follows on from the previous.       Recognise when your emotions are pulling you down and find something that you can focus on that will lift you up. Some people use music, exercise or meditation to achieve this positive state.
  5. Develop flexibility – have the attitude that if one thing doesn’t work, there is something else that will. Make plans but be willing to change them if they are not working. A rigid pipe is more likely to break than a flexible one. It’s the same with plans and goals.
  6. Choose your battles wisely – learn which battles to fight and which ones to let go off because the emotional investment is not worth it.
  7. Where does your motivation come from? When you recognise what motivates you, then you can deliberately use that thing or activity when you are feeling demotivated. I love to read autobiographies of people who have overcome great challenges as this encourages me not to give up in the face of challenges.
  8. Keep your eyes on the prize (visualisation). Athletes use this technique to focus when they are in a race. Reminding yourself of what you are hoping to achieve or where you are headed is good way of ensuring that you are not distracted by problems or stressors.
  9. Finally, don’t be too proud to ask for help when you need it. An old proverb says: “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”