How to tap into your natural resilience to handle stress & change

How to tap into your natural resilience to handle stress & change

Written by Sonya Stattmann

Sonya Stattmann has spent the last 24 years providing wellness education, training & coaching to individuals, teams, and organizations around the world. She currently offers corporate wellness, founder support & coaching for stress & burnout.

How we handle stress and change is determined by our resilience. When we have more resilience, we can handle life’s challenges gracefully. When we have less resilience, we struggle to handle stress & change effectively. 

Humans are born with natural resilience and systems in the body that support resilience. Learning how to support these systems is key to achieving success, wellness, and happiness. 

As a stress management coach & corporate wellness trainer, I have supported thousands of people to tap into their natural resilience, navigate stress effectively, and improve their mental health. 

What you will learn about natural resilience and managing stress:

What natural resilience is and why you are wired for it

My favorite definition of resilience is the capacity you have to handle adversity, stress & change. It isn’t a state of being, but a capacity that fluctuates. Resilience expands and contracts throughout your life.

When you have more capacity & resilience, you can handle what life throws at you, and you more easily recover from hardship. When your capacity & resilience are low, even a small amount of stress, change, or adversity can throw your life into chaos. 

I think of it as a bucket. We all have a bucket that gets filled with life experiences. When your bucket is filled, you have no more capacity for challenge or change. You can empty your bucket, or get a bigger bucket and expand your resilience. 

Natural resilience is the capacity you were born with and all humans are born with resilience.

You have a built-in system for survival designed to handle adversity, stress & change. Your body is unconsciously monitoring for challenges every second of every day. When you encounter stress or change, your body automatically responds to it and works to save you. 

You are literally wired for resilience! 

The nervous system and how it relates to your resilience

Your built-in system for survival is the nervous system. The nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord, and a complex network of nerves. It is the primary communication system between the brain and the rest of the body. 

It controls all of your automatic body functions like breathing and heart rate. It is also responsible for your stress responses and how you respond to perceived threats. 

The nervous system is designed to handle stress, adversity & change. It is your natural resilience mechanism. 

In other words, a healthy or regulated nervous system is more resilient. The problem is that most of us have a dysregulated nervous system. 

We have been overloaded with stress and we don’t have the space and skills to process the stress we are constantly experiencing. 

I like the framework designed by Dan Siegel, a clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA. He coined the phrase “Window of Tolerance”, describing the capacity we have for stress & adversity. When you are within your window of tolerance, you can process & regulate your emotions. You can think, reflect & communicate effectively. You can tolerate challenges. 

When you are outside of your window of tolerance, you experience a dysregulated nervous system. You might experience anxiety, depression, chronic stress, insomnia, extreme fatigue and so much more. 

Your window of tolerance can widen or narrow depending on your life experiences and your ability to regulate your nervous system. 

I equate resilience with a regulated nervous system – when you are regulated, you have more resilience, when you are dysregulated, you have less resilience. 

The great news is that everyone can learn to regulate their nervous system! 

How natural resilience expands your capacity to handle stress & change

When you tap into your natural resilience, a regulated nervous system, you feel safe, connected & calm. You feel hopeful in the face of adversity or change. You feel possibility and see the glass half full. 

The stress that you experience appears manageable. You have the capacity to see it, feel it, and handle it. 

Your body might have a momentary reaction or shock, but you can come back into hope and calmness quickly. 

On the other end of the spectrum, when you have a dysregulated nervous system, even the tiniest amount of stress appears insurmountable

You resist what is happening to you, fighting to change things. Or you collapse and experience hopelessness & despair. At those moments, your ability to bounce back, your resilience, is low. 

Working with the nervous system directly allows you to expand your ability to bounce back and your capacity to handle life’s challenges.  

What increases or decreases your capacity for natural resilience

Every person is born with a different capacity for natural resilience. The way your nervous system is wired is unique to you. 

Your nervous system starts developing in utero and is influenced by your mother’s nervous system and the world around her. This is a really interesting rabbit hole, but what is being discovered is that before you are even born, some of your nervous system wiring is in place. 

Throughout your life, your nervous system continues to re-wire. When you are very young, you have a lot of open wiring because you haven’t made a lot of connections or associations with what is a threat and what isn’t. 

As you develop, you begin to put core memories and experiences in place that help you interpret the world. So your patterns around regulation and dysregulation are developed in childhood. 

Many factors can decrease your resilience (i.e. create a dysregulated nervous system). Here are a few:

  • Trauma (both big and small, especially repeated experiences)
  • Being surrounded by other dysregulated nervous systems (especially in childhood)
  • Stress (chronic or prolonged stress)
  • Exposure to toxins (heavy metals, mold, etc.)
  • Mental health conditions 
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Chronic illness or physical disabilities  
  • Being different from the “norm” or what is accepted

In truth, it is hard to get through life without having multiple factors that dysregulate our nervous system. This is why nervous system regulation is so important! 

There are also factors that increase your resilience (i.e. support a regulated nervous system). Here are a few: 

  • Supportive environments (especially within the immediate family)
  • Being surrounded by other regulated nervous systems
  • Sunlight, good food & mindful movement
  • Adequate sleep
  • Therapy and working through trauma
  • Effective stress management 
  • Being in nature
  • Having pets 
  • Tools to regulate your nervous system 

The good news is that regardless of your current capacity for resilience, you can expand it!  

How to build on your natural resilience

The easiest way to build on your natural resilience is to regulate your nervous system! 

You can do this in two primary ways: 

  • Practice regulating your nervous system when you are dysregulated
  • Build resilience micro-practices into your daily routine

Both methods use many of the same tools, but the first is used when you are activated or dysregulated and the other is preventative & habitual. Let’s start with talking about using tools in dysregulation. 

I think it is helpful to understand what it feels like to be dysregulated so you know when to grab a tool from your toolbox! 

Dysregulation can look different for each of us, so understanding what it looks like for you is important. 

In the moment, dysregulation is an activated nervous system: you might feel your heart beating fast, a surge of energy pumping through your body, or a shortness of breath. 

Over time, as dysregulation becomes chronic, you might experience: 

  • Anxiety
  • Worry or obsessive thinking
  • Chronic stress
  • Hypervigilance or always being on high alert
  • Insomnia
  • Struggle with digestion or GI problems
  • High levels of anger or a short fuse
  • Depression
  • Lack of motivation or extreme exhaustion
  • Isolation or social disconnection 
  • Too much sleep or never feeling quite awake
  • Emotionally numb
  • Decision fatigue
  • And so much more!

Can you pinpoint symptoms that resonate for you? What does your dysregulation look like? 

Sometimes it is helpful to compare it with what regulation looks like. A regulated nervous system usually includes the following: 

  • Slow & steady breathing
  • Steady heart rate
  • Even emotions
  • Clear mind and the ability to think rationally & logically
  • Being present in the moment
  • Feeling connected & hopeful 
  • Relaxed muscles & low tension
  • Feeling capable of handling stress & change

What do you feel like when you are regulated? Can you think of a time in your life when you felt capable, happy & calm? 

When you are NOT feeling capable, happy & calm, what does that look like for you? The more you can understand how dysregulation shows up in your life, the easier it will be to grab a tool for regulation. 

3 tools for building resilience when you feel anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed

Many tools can help you regulate your nervous system. I am going to give you three below. All three of these tools can be used in the moment of dysregulation. 

What makes them effective is that they have a direct connection to the nervous system, don’t require “thinking” and can be used quickly to regulate. 

Three of my favorite regulation tools: 

  1. Co-regulation with nature
  2. The sensory pause
  3. Aromatherapy

—> Co-regulation with nature is quick & effective

One of the amazing things about our nervous system is that it is designed to co-regulate with other nervous systems. 

This means that when we are around a regulated nervous system, it helps us regulate our own. 

This is called co-regulation. Of course, the opposite is also true: when we are around other people with a dysregulated nervous system, it can cause dysregulation in our nervous system. This all happens unconsciously and automatically. 

Nature is a natural co-regulator. It is ALWAYS available for regulation. When you feel dysregulated, take 5-10 minutes to walk outside. Notice the trees and flowers. Feel the wind or sun on your face. Watch the animals or insects. 

The more time you spend in nature, the more regulated your nervous system will be. You can also bring nature into your home or office. Having live plants or cut flowers can help you co-regulate while you work. 

—> The sensory pause is a quick way to deactivate stress responses.

This regulation tool requires access to a faucet. This is a great exercise to use anywhere, just ask to be excused from the situation and make your way to the bathroom or where you can access the faucet. 

Once at the faucet, turn on hot or cold water. Submerge your hands in the running water and notice the sensations. How does the running water feel on your hands? You can close your eyes and feel the sensations, or look directly at the water and your hands. 

> Can you feel the temperature of the water? 

> Does the water feel soft or rough on your skin? 

> Is it a pleasant sensation? 

Move your hands around the water and notice what it feels like. If you want, move back and forth between a few minutes of hot water and then a few minutes of cold water. 

You can also move from feeling your hands in the water to noticing how they feel outside of the water.  

The back-and-forth, also called pendulation, shifts your nervous system more easily. 

If you have the time and ability, take a shower or bath. Practice this exercise with your whole body submerged. That’s it! It is a simple exercise that has a powerful effect. 

—> Aromatherapy is a quick fix when you feel anxious or overwhelmed. 

Did you know that the olfactory system is directly connected to the brain & nervous system? Your sense of smell has a direct impact on your regulation or dysregulation. 

The scent molecules in essential oils trigger the brain to produce neurotransmitters that can regulate mood, reduce stress & improve mental health. 

Ideally, you want to find the scent that works for you. When working with my clients, I suggest going to a store selling essential oils. Spend time exploring the different scents. When you have the right scent, you will feel calm and relaxed. 

Some people respond well to lavender, while some hate it. Some people prefer citrus scents, while some hate them. It takes experimentation, but once you find the right scent, you can carry an essential oil roll-on wherever you go.  

Using these tools when you feel dysregulated will help build your resilience muscles! 

7 daily resilience practices for building on your natural resilience

Building on your natural resilience can also be done as a daily practice. I prefer micro-practices, which are 5-15-minute practices that you build into your daily routine.

Like the regulation tools above, each practice has a direct connection to the nervous system and has been proven effective for regulation. They expand your capacity for resilience! 

Resilience micro-practice #1: Prioritize sleep 

Sleep is one of the key factors for increased resilience. Sleep is so important for our well-being. You want to get into a good sleep routine, consisting of 7-8 hours of sleep each night. The science says it is ideal to go to bed and get up around the same time each day, even on weekends. Removing electronic devices early and giving yourself time to wind down improves sleep. 

Resilience micro-practice #2: Journaling 

Expressive journaling builds resilience and there is a lot of science around physically writing out your thoughts. Yes, this means using paper & a pen. I am an advocate for practicing “morning pages”. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes, put pen to paper, and write down every thought that comes to mind. If you have nothing to write, write “I have nothing to write”. Eventually, thoughts come, your mind will be clear, and your nervous system will regulate.

Resilience micro-practice #3: Spend 10 minutes in sunlight

Sunlight is required for an optimally functioning nervous system. This means receiving direct light. If possible, you also want to look directly at the early morning sun. Pair this with your normal morning routine. Grab your coffee and head to your backyard, or spend 10 minutes in the sun before you walk into your office. This simple micro-practice supports your nervous system and reduces stress. 

Resilience micro-practice #4: Regular co-regulation with nature, pets or kids

I mentioned co-regulating with nature above, but you can also co-regulate with pets or kids. For co-regulation to be effective, you have to feel relaxed when with your pets or kids. So think of times when you are loving with your pets or kids, or they are loving with you. That little hit of pleasure or “love” stimulates neurotransmitters and supports your nervous system’s regulation.

Resilience micro-practice #5: Hang out with people who lift you up 

Connection is a big factor for a regulated nervous system. The more positive and uplifting people you have in your life, the more resilience you have. As a micro-practice, choose to spend more time with the people who unconditionally support you. Make a conscious effort to build more resilience through connection. You can also choose to minimize time with people who deplete your energy or take you down. Both practices will support resilience. 

Resilience micro-practice #6: Take a mindful walk every day

Mindful movement is a powerful resilience practice. A mindful walk is different from just walking. You want to use your attention to focus on what is inside of you and around you while walking. You are not listening to a podcast or thinking about your to-do list. It is about paying attention to the present moment. Notice how your body feels moving. How your feet feel on the ground as you step, how your arms swing. Notice the trees around you, or the sky. Pay attention and notice what is in and around you. Even 15 minutes of this exercise shifts your nervous system, helps you relax, and boosts your mental health. 

Resilience micro-practice #7: Engage a therapist or coach (i.e. have someone to talk to)

Part of building resilience is processing emotions and metabolizing stress. It is helpful to have someone to do this with, and a therapist or coach is trained to hold space in a way that is neutral and supportive.

You absolutely can use trusted partners, friends, or family members, but the key is to ensure they have a regulated nervous system and can allow you to process without their reactions and emotions getting in the way. I do this work with my 1:1 clients and help them empty their buckets so they have more capacity to handle stress, adversity & change. 

All seven of these practices can be done as part of your resilience routine! 

—> If you need extra support with your mental health goals or nervous system regulation, here are a few resources:

For nervous system self-regulation tools: Sign up for the Mental Health Toolkit. Launching soon, this private podcast course is packed with 30 tools for nervous system regulation, education, and stress management tips. 

For customized 1:1 support: Learn more about my stress management coaching program, designed to help you reduce stress, improve your mental health & set up the right wellness practices for you.