Building resilience in stressful situations

This year has been a year like no other, with the global pandemic impacting our lives in many ways. As part of Mental Health Month, we are running a series of articles about mental health. To kick off the series Dr Katherine Knight, Acting Medical Head of Department of Psychological Medicine at SCHN, discusses how the pandemic has impacted people in different ways and how to build resilience in stressful situations.

How has COVID-19 impacted mental health?

Since COVID-19 we have all been aware of the impact of disruption to our routines. Initially, I suspect we all experienced fear and anxiety about illness and health concerns for ourselves and our loved ones as the world news demonstrated the global impact of the virus.

Since then we have had changes with home isolation and online learning. Our children have stayed away from school, learned online (for those who could) and then returned to school with social distancing and changes to sport and activities. For the families around us, there has been financial stress, home isolation, working from home, working less or more depending on circumstances. For ourselves, or at least for me, it’s been harder to manage good sleep, eating, and exercise habits.

 All adaptation to change takes energy, of which we each have different levels. After all, everyone has a life of their own - families, friends, work commitments, health and other issues which have continued in their own natural ebb and flow despite the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Why does stress seem to affect some people more than others?

It is, in part, a balance of stress and protective life factors. For some time there has been a scientific conversation around the nature of stress. Increasingly researchers are identifying that there are different levels of stress: stress that can be experienced as positive, stress that can be experienced as tolerable and stress that is experienced as toxic.

Positive stress is about the smaller and manageable amounts of stress that are important for growth and learning - for example facing your first interview or learning a new skill. These are self-limited episodes where success is associated with growth and an understanding that stress can lead to mastery.

Tolerable stress is considered a more substantial exposure to stress - where again there is capacity to last through the stress without it causing ongoing distress or difficulties in functioning.

Toxic stress is the stress we associate with longer term functional impairment and in children this ‘toxicity’ can be directly related to development and impacts on the brain, perhaps leading to difficulties in emotion regulation, ongoing anxiety or more subtle difficulties long term. That stress is usually longer lasting and often associated with the experience of an inescapable negative serious situation.

As individuals we are born with capacities and temperamental factors that predispose us to being more outgoing or shy which may have an impact on how well and easily we adapt to new environments and situations. In my daily work, I am often struck by how the families I have worked with do adapt to some very challenging situations irrespective of their previous circumstances. Humans are amazing in what they can do.

How can stress be managed?

There is good evidence that stress can be more easily managed if protective factors are in place. The protective factors are for the most part thought to be relational. That is, when we have protective, positive, connected relationships to our family, extended family and friends - this provides a cushion for some of the difficult aspects of life.

Another important factor is around having purpose and meaning in life. This can be a personal goal, work, school, something we are aiming for or a cause we believe in. These things make it worth persevering through difficult times with the bigger outcome in mind.

How can we foster resilience factors in ourselves and our children?

So, from research we know that not all stress is toxic and indeed some stress is needed for us and our children to develop the capacity to adapt and flourish, especially in the face of potentially uncertain futures.

We also know that some people are lucky enough to be born with extra resilience factors and positive temperamental traits - however resilience can be learned and fostered. If we encourage ourselves and our kids to see difficult situations as challenges then we can be active in working out what resources we have to bring to them. Some situations are always going to be difficult, but it can be easier to manage when we know we have support.

Some of the best evidence for resilience factors is around positive meaningful relationships and having purpose in life, a life worth living - this is what we need to strive for, for us and our families. Healthy parental and other adult relationships that are characterised by warmth and respect are important for children to observe and learn from.

If we, as adults, can stay calm, connected and hopeful then this creates the environment where children have the opportunity to learn these skills themselves. This provides more scope for learning and developing than to tell them what to do! I have to remember this with my own children every day.

Best wishes and take care this mental health month.

Kath Knight