Resilience by Sarah Bridges, PhD, MBA

Meet the Author

We can’t think our way out of stress or forget that we are biological beings. Resilience’s ground zero involves controlling our sleep patterns before anything else. Without this, we are more stress sensitive during the day, our hunger hormones spike, we overeat, and we are less prone to exercise. It’s a downward spiral, and the starting point is bedtime.

At its core, well-being is driven by brain chemicals. The good and bad news is that our behavior directly shifts the neurotransmitters in our heads. When dopamine is higher, we feel motivated. If we want to feel more driven, we can exercise for 30 minutes, take a two-minute cold shower, laugh, dive into the early morning, drink coffee, or get sunlight in our eyes first thing. All these activities raise dopamine and make hard things easier.

When we are pressured, our brains direct us in the wrong way and lie to us about what will make us feel better. Stress-caused spikes in cortisol are aimed at getting us moving forward. Instead of trying to eradicate the feeling, it is helpful to reframe it as a prompt to do something physical. Walking briskly (even for three minutes between meetings) calms the amygdala and diffuses cortisol.

Dr. Dan Gilbert’s research shows that we are terrible at predicting what makes us happy. We prioritize quick rewards and sell short the things that work. I’ve heard from clients lately that their drinking and overeating are up, and people feel stuck. One executive I work with tracked (but didn’t change) how he felt after drinking two glasses of wine with dinner each night. This was his “unwind” time, and he was sure it helped his stress. He found that after drinking, he slept less well and skipped his workout in the morning. In turn, the day was launched on a tense note and set him up to repeat the cycle at bedtime. These observations led to an experiment to limit drinking to weekend nights and substitute walking with his wife following weeknight dinners. The change allowed him to manage his bedtime and the morning exercise shifted the day’s energy. From here, he prioritized mentally taxing projects first thing (when dopamine is high), and the momentum affected the rest of the day.

Certain research findings crop up over and over. Increasing resilience begins by getting serious about our biological bodies and understanding that immediate rewards have a rebound effect.

Here are a few places to start:

  • Identify the bedtime that allows you 7-8 hours of sleep and stick to it for a month.
  • Move your body (even 15 minutes) before you start the workday.
  • Use the early day for the most demanding work when dopamine is naturally highest.
  • Get five minutes of outside light into your eyes soon after waking.
  • Do a mood tracker for a week and correlate your activities with your emotions.
  • Stand up between meetings and walk for a few minutes, even in your house.
  • Note the “treats” you offer yourself for stress management and how you feel after them (binging Netflix, drinking, dessert, social media, or other things).
  • Create a substitute list of pleasant actions that increase well-being. Conduct a “me-search” and find the ones that work for you.
  • Intentionally notice the positive moments in the day and savor them.
  • Focus on things you look forward to. Surveys show that Fridays are preferred to Sundays (even though the latter are days off) due to anticipating the weekend.
  • Emphasize choice and control in your life. Depression is linked to the perception of helplessness over life’s outcomes. Even minor changes to what you can affect can shift this bias.