So, how can you build resilience? This begins with acknowledging that life can get stressful (no matter who you are or what you do) and just as you know eating well is good for your physical wellbeing, supporting mental health requires regularly incorporate the lifestyle strategies shown to be beneficial.
While stress is a word used a lot, in this context it refers to the physical response of your body to demands made upon it, whether they are physical, mental or emotional. This is important to understand as ongoing, unmanaged stress can be harmful – the adrenaline you need to power through a really busy day is the same chemical body signal that would be released if something sudden and life threatening occurred to you.
The impact on your body is the same in both scenarios – an increase in blood pressure, faster respiration rate, a rapid heart rate, a decrease in digestive capacity, along with an eventual corresponding decrease in immune function. Known as the ‘stress response’, adrenaline is released as it is useful acutely when you need to run away from, for example, a lion – but it’s not so great if you are exposed to it on a day to day basis.
In fact, being in a heightened state of systemic ‘alarm’ is the reason why many people experience daily fatigue, and is why sometimes innocuous events can begin to trigger a feeling of overwhelm for some people.
The aim of building resilience is to reduce the number and/or impact of these acute events. To do this requires your ongoing investment in positive health-based decisions. The foundational tactics with which you can help yourself enjoy a smoother ride through life:
- Start by sprucing up your diet – everyone has to eat so this is a logical place to start. Whilst a balanced wholefood diet is good for general health, some foods are packed with the nutrients specifically required for healthy nervous system function. These include the omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia), foods rich in zinc (meat, fish, nuts and seeds again!), magnesium (green leafy vegetables, legumes, figs, avocado, fish and nuts and seeds…again!). Avoid the refined, processed packet foods that include unhealthy fats, sugars and artificial chemicals. Don’t underestimate the impact of dietary improvement for all aspects of health – this is your #1 tactic.
- Carry out a personal sleep audit – between 33% and 45% of adults in Australia sleep poorly, or not enough, which can definitely undermine mental wellbeing. After all, it’s no surprise that things can get a bit too much if you are constantly tired. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of actual sleep a night, and speak to your natural healthcare Practitioner if you are struggling, as there are herbs and nutrients able to help you improve the quality and quantity of your sleep if needed.
- Prioritise moving – time and time again regular exercise has been shown to be specifically beneficial for mental health. Get outdoors if you can and walk, jog, run, cycle, kayak, hill-climb – or head to the gym or a dance class if that’s your preference – as long as it’s happening and regularly. Moving and exercising regularly not only reduces feelings of stress but helps improve memory, sleep, and boosts mood. Australian guidelines recommend 30 minutes of moderate to intensive physical exercise on most days of the week. Incorporating any movement helps so it’s not an ‘all or nothing’ thing – if you rarely move then start small and work up to it – the important thing is it’s regular (every day is best!).
- “Pay attention on purpose” – this is how I once saw the practice of ‘mindfulness’ being described; but all humour aside, the evidence for developing a mindfulness practice is growing with a number of studies showing people reporting less stress, improved physical and emotional health, and better sleep. Plus it can lead to the all-important physical reductions of stress-related biomarkers including blood pressure and cortisol levels (the stress hormone), good for your long-term health also. So what is mindfulness? Well it does not necessarily have to involve meditation, but can instead be a technique applied to everyday life; a mental state whereby you practice focussing on each present moment, and calmly acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, emotions and body sensations – all without judgement. Becoming more mindful gets easier with time and practice, and can help you to remain calm, regulate your thoughts, emotions and reactions, and stay present even in the midst of stressful events.
- Look after your gut bugs – any disturbance in digestive health can contribute to mood swings, anxiety and low mood due to what’s referred to as the ‘gut-brain axis’. The beneficial microbes that reside in your gastrointestinal tract contribute to more than your gut health so are very worth looking after – starting by feeding them well. Ensure you have plenty of fibre in your diet as this is what they feed on primarily. Eat widely from a range of wholegrains, legumes, fresh nuts, and lots of colourful vegetables and fruits (unpeeled where possible). That said, if you have any digestive symptoms this is a sign that something is not quite right; but as this could be due to a range of things, avoid the guesswork and discuss your situation with your healthcare Practitioner.
- Do the things you love – maybe its skateboarding, dancing, reading a good book, dragon boat racing, painting, bushwalking, rebuilding classic cars – whatever it is that rocks your boat, just do it and do it regularly. Think of all the experiences you want to have that you can look back on and be grateful you made time for – that’s probably not working a 60 hour week, every week, with no ‘play-time’. Which would you prefer?
Strategic Supplemental Support
- Nervous system nutrients – like it or not it is not uncommon for adults to get insufficient magnesium from their diets, so this is one of the really helpful supplements for mental wellbeing. Not all magnesium’s are made equal – some are cheap and poorly absorbed and these are the ones too often for sale ‘over the counter’. Also, it can be more economical to use a formula that’s combined with other nervous system supporting nutrients including zinc, B vitamins and taurine to get the best results.
- Adaptogenic herbs – this is one you may not have heard about but there is a whole class of natural medicines termed ‘adaptogens’ due to their ability to support physical and mental health during times of stress, and which improve performance. Examples include Withania somnifera, Eleuthrococcus senticosus, and Rhodiola rosea. These are best discussed with a qualified Clinical Naturopath or Herbalist, who can take into consideration your health history and any medications you may be taking as well as assess which herb matches your situation best (e.g. do you need a tonifying or calming adaptogenic herb?). They are very different in action.
Help yourself to create a life that goes more smoothly by incorporating as many of the above strategies that you feel you could improve upon. By doing so you can look forward to improved physical, mental and emotional wellbeing for the long-term, whatever comes your way.