Building stress resilience

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I’m sure we can all remember a time when we have tried to make a lifestyle change, whether it is exercising or eating more healthily, where we have failed when we are under stress. It turns out there are reasons why being under stress makes it difficult to change a habit. Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct explains how stress primes the brain to take automatic action, making impulses harder to control. We are sometimes described by neuroscientists as having one brain but two minds. The one makes conscious choices based on self awareness and reflection, the other automatic reactive choices based on habit and instinct. Stress hormones switch on the reflex automatic mode and switch off the conscious reflective mode, making it much harder for us to resit temptation and stick to our conscious goals.

The good news is that by changing your stress physiology, you can start moving your brain to the mode that supports better choices. I’ll explore how to do this in more detail in another post, but for now anything that gets you out of the stress response will help. Kelly suggests possibilities including a few minute of deep abdominal, focused breathing, going for a walk, snuggling a pet or being hugged by a loved one, or even watching a funny Youtube video.

This knowledge can help you have a more compassionate response to yourself when you notice yourself failing to make lifestyle changes, as it is very hard to do using pure willpower when under stress. However, if you soothe the stress response first, you may find it easier to start making changes that build your resilience to stress.