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Building and maintaining resilience in difficult times

Date: 13-08-2021

Written by Chantelle van der Weyden BPsych (Hons), AdvDip(Nat), AdvDip(NutMed)

We are all trying to find our way through these difficult times. It goes without saying, 2020 was a difficult year, and 2021 has continued to be just as uncertain. 70-90% of GP presentations are related to stress1, and this isn’t overly surprising given our modern lifestyles coupled with a once in a generation pandemic.

Stress – psychological, physical, emotional – is a powerful entity that has been implicated in many disease processes including anxiety, depression, hormone imbalance, compromised immunity and gut dysfunction. While this may sound overwhelming given that we live in a world where stress is inescapable; adapting, overcoming and even growing from stressful life events is possible, partly thanks to the concept of resilience.

What is resilience?

Resilience is a relatively new psychological term. Taken in its literal sense, it is the ability of a material to return to its original form after being bent, stretched or compressed. In psychology, resilience refers to the ability of one to overcome and adapt well to life changing events and stressful situations2. It is a positive adaptation to a stressful situation. Significant sources of stress can include health problems, relationship or family problems, workplace and financial concerns – many of which we can all relate to. Resilience enables good health, physical, psychological, social and spiritual welfare, healing and personal recovery, quality of life and a sense of wellbeing despite life or health circumstance3.

What resilience is not…

Possessing resilience does not mean that one does not experience difficulty or distress, or that there is a lack of awareness of personal problems. Finding resilience tends to involve considerable distress, and finding the strength to overcome said problems3.

Resilience is not necessarily innate, and stress erodes resilience. However, like building muscle, resilience is something we can work on building over time.

How to build resilience…

Social connection

Connecting with others offers a sense of belonging, and helps facilitate coping with stress and adaptation to change. Social relationships have been linked to an improved stress response4, improved health outcomes and longevity5, and social support has been shown to significantly increase resilience6.

Practice mindfulness

Mindful practices such as yoga, journaling and meditation help one focus on the present, build connections, and reduce stress. They allow one to learn how to observe without judgement, which is essential to building resilience. Research shows that mindfulness and gratitude increase our ability to be resilient in the face of adversity6.

Diet and lifestyle

Taking care of your body is essential for mental health and building resilience. Easily digestible proteins, plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and wholegrains will provide you with adequate nutrition to support a healthy stress response. Exercise is well known to reduce anxiety and depression, boost mood and cognition and increase resilience.

Herbal and nutritional intervention

There are a multitude of herbs and nutrients that support a healthy stress response and thus increase resilience. Withania, rehmannia, Siberian ginseng and rhodiola are just a few herbal medicines that build vitality and nourish the nervous system. Nutrients such as vitamin C, B vitamins, amino acids, zinc, and magnesium support a healthy stress response. Reach out to your natural health practitioner for guidance.

Seek support

If you need support in building resilience there are many places to turn. Your naturopath, nutritionist or herbalist may be able to provide help in the way of diet, lifestyle and appropriate supplementation. A psychologist or counsellor may also be able to offer support whereby cognitive behavioural therapy has been shown to have a positive impact on individual resilience building7.

Sense of purpose

Finding a sense of purpose through volunteer work, helping others, or even through your work if it involves some kind of service can be incredibly healing. It can enable a sense of presence, connection with others, and help build self-worth, all of which foster resilience.  

(1)    Chatterjee, D. (2018). The Stress solution: the 4 steps to reset your body, mind, relationships and purpose. Penguin.
(2)    American Psychological Association (2012). Resilience. https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience#
(3)    Babi, R., Babi, M., Rastovi, P., Urlin, M., Šimi, J., Mandi, K., & Pavlovi, K. (2020). Resilience in health and illness. Medicinska naklada (Vol. 32).
(4)    Gaffey, A. E., Bergeman, C. S., Clark, L. A., & Wirth, M. M. (2016). Aging and the HPA axis: Stress and resilience in older adults. In Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews (Vol. 68, pp. 928–945). Elsevier Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.05.036
(5)    Yang, Y. C., Boen, C., Gerken, K., Li, T., Schorpp, K., & Harris, K. M. (2016). Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(3), 578–583. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1511085112
(6)    Liu, J. J. W., Ein, N., Gervasio, J., Battaion, M., Reed, M., & Vickers, K. (2020). Comprehensive meta-analysis of resilience interventions. In Clinical Psychology Review (Vol. 82). Elsevier Inc. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2020.101919
(7)    Joyce, S., Shand, F., Tighe, J., Laurent, S. J., Bryant, R. A., & Harvey, S. B. (2018). Road to resilience: A systematic review and meta-analysis of resilience training programmes and interventions. In BMJ Open (Vol. 8, Issue 6). BMJ Publishing Group. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-017858