The more I work with clients in my herbal practice and observe the trends in wellness culture, the more convinced I become that we need to look at stress differently. Just as healing can be limited by both conventional medicine and natural medicine if we’re unwilling to integrate the two together, there’s only so far you can go with strategies that try to reduce stress and mitigate its negative effects. Looking at stress through the lens of building resilience changes everything.
Like most holistically-oriented practitioners, I want more for my clients than for them to just be free from disease; I want them to have a better, fuller, more meaningful life on the other side of recovery than they had before they got sick. And I want more for you than to simply avoid the worst consequences of chronic stress. When framed in terms of building resilience, stress can become a proving ground where you strengthen your commitment to your values, increase your capacity for effective action, deepen bonds of love, forge a legacy, and compel your spiritual life to plant itself in the truth of what really matters.
Putting this perspective into practice is simple, if not always easy. Here are a few ways to think about stress from the perspective of building resilience, along with some examples of how to apply this paradigm shift in your own life:
Take small steps. When facing a big, complex challenge, it can be tempting to try to architect an intricate plan for how you’re going to take care of yourself — or to assume that a small sip of relief would barely begin to quench your thirst and decide that it’s not worth doing. If you tend to feel overwhelmed by stress, push yourself to solve small problems or take baby steps. This is a way to practice internal locus of control, a resilience-building ability to identify the things that are within your power instead of feeling that you’re at the mercy of circumstance. Start by asking, “what’s one small thing I can do right now?” It might be cleaning off your desk, getting a drink of water, or doing a small favor for someone else. The important thing is to refuse to let overwhelm bully you into passivity by doing small, manageable things.
Embrace simplicity as an antidote to perfectionism. For those of us whose stress is the result of ambition and a desire not just to “control the things we can” but to be in control as much as possible, that destructive impulse can push us to cram our “self-care” routines full of more and more obligations and to-do list items. If this is you, stop chasing perfection and challenge yourself to embrace simplicity in your wellness routine. For example, ditch your boutique fitness classes in favor of outdoor workouts in the park. In one elegant move, you’ll save money (reducing financial stress), spend time in nature (proven to reduce stress), and get your exercise.
Think beyond self-care. Resilient people aren’t fiercely independent; they’re interdependent. Interdependence requires both a capacity to give of ourselves to others and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to receive. (In my observation, the healthiest people give more than they receive — but they do it from a place of joy and generosity.) Self-care isn’t an answer for those of us who are addicted to giving to others well beyond our capacity and past the point of resentment. After all, self-care requires the person who is exhausted from giving to do more giving — by giving to herself! If your stress is compounded by a feeling that you’re constantly giving to others but nobody is taking care of you, the remedy is to receive care, help, or support from others. Being the one who does everything for everybody creates an illusion of being both loved and in control at the same time. Simply delegating tasks or asking for generic help isn’t true interdependence (and you’ve probably tried it already and found that it didn’t work!) To heal this pattern, you’ll need the courage to show someone you trust a place where you’re struggling, weak, or imperfect — and then ask for their help in this area. This practice isn’t easy, but it’s the path to real connection, and it will set you free to give wholeheartedly without resentment.
Connect with humans, as humans. Technology is a gift, but relying on it too heavily can deprive us of a vital nutrient for our nervous systems: human connection. It’s in the context of real person-to-person relationship that our nervous systems have the easiest time shifting out of stress and into feelings of safety. Friendly facial expressions, warm eye contact, variations in tone of voice, and supportive touch all send powerful signals to your nervous system that calm stress and build resilience. None of these nonverbal cues can come through in an email or a text. Opting for a voice-to-voice conversation instead of texting, scheduling in-person quality time with friends, and even something as simple as making eye contact and smiling with a clerk at a check-out counter are all ways to give your nervous system the feedback that it needs to recover from a stress response.
Consider herbal remedies. Interdependence doesn’t stop with our relationships to other humans; we share the web of life with plants, animals, and fungi too! Beyond the food we eat and the air we breathe, plants can provide profound support to help us relax, heal, and build resilience. Simple herbal remedies like a cup of lavender & chamomile tea or a 30 second self-anointing with uplifting lemon balm or neroli infused jojoba oil take very little time and effort but yield significant relief. There’s even an entire class of herbs (called “adaptogens”) that have been scientifically proven to improve resilience to physical and emotional stress. Talk with your health care provider before using herbs if you’re taking any medications or have chronic condition, and know that you don’t need to spend a fortune on supplements to get good results. The real magic is in the gratitude that comes from receiving help directly from Nature’s bounty. (If you’re new to the world of herbal medicine and need some help getting started, there’s a whole chapter of simple remedies to relieve stress, anxiety, sleep problems, and other emotional challenges in my book, The Simple Guide to Natural Health).
Honor the forge. Above all, changing your relationship to stress requires a shift in your mindset. Instead of focusing on the damage stress can do, recall that stress has the capacity to shape and strengthen us. Yes, you can choose to step away from stressors that are shaping you into someone you don’t want to be. It’s potentially an even more powerful choice to wholeheartedly accept stressors that will hone your power, make a difference for others, or expand your capacity for self-giving love. Completing an advanced degree, having a baby, and accompanying a parent through end-of-life issues are stressful, but the pain and burning you feel as you pass through them are more like the constructive fire of the forge than a destructive act of arson. How could you choose to approach the most stressful situation in your life as an opportunity to live your values? When you relate to stress this way, you’ll transform it from senseless suffering into pain that’s made sacred by its purpose. As best I know it, this is the most reliable path to a deeply meaningful life.