We know that there’s the long-term work of creating better habits that boost your resilience: ongoing, consistent practices of confronting your own shame triggers and getting into vulnerability, body-based practices, sitting down to reframe limiting stories.
But what about short-term ways to boost your resilience? What about approaches to boost your resilience that you can use, here and now? And especially, what are the options that are free? I’m going to guess that you—the person reading this—you are an empathic, caring individual. You are managing the overwhelm of career, life, family, friends, creative dreams, and personal growth all amid stressors such as a global pandemic, an impacted economy, and unjust political systems.
The stress and overwhelm will pull you down. Every. Time. So, in the short-term? Here are some free ways to boost your resilience in the short-term:
1. Stop telling yourself that self-care can come later. This is essential because if you don’t reckon with this, first, you won’t be able to implement any of the other items in this list. Caregiver burnout is extraordinarily real. Studies of healthcare workers have found that the burnout rate is now above 50% (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28481850/), and others have found that it tends to get worse with age, regardless of your profession (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16341826/).
Yes, we need systemic changes—cultural changes in our thinking about consumption, the releasing of “junk values” that prioritize acquiring external “stuff” or looking “successful” to others, childcare and educational support, universal healthcare, living wages.
But in the interim, while we don’t have those societal changes? We need you, as resilient as possible helping us all to collectively create those changes. So please—please—make time and space for some level of self-care. Commit to it with as much devotion as you are committed to the people you love. Put yourself on the list of people you love. Cost: Free.
2. Make time each day for daily meditation or mindfulness practices. Yes, yes, I know—meditation is so frequently talked about in self-help and personal growth that many people quickly dismiss it. But there are clinical studies that have found that meditation or mindfulness practices help to reduce feelings of burnout and increase resilience (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29602138/).
Again, you probably feel short on time, and at first it can be difficult to really feel “present” or as if meditation is even doing anything. Given that, I suggest using guided meditation via different apps, most of which are free. I’m a teacher for SimpleHabit and you can find my guided meditations there if you search for “Kate Swoboda”, or, you can use other apps such as InsightTimer, Calm, or HeadSpace. If you don’t have a phone, but are reading this on a laptop, you can easily find guided meditations.
You don’t need a lot of time for meditation. Just 5 to 10 minutes can make a world of difference. Cost: Free as long as you have access to an internet connection, or free if you decide to simply set a timer and breathe.
3. Physical activity matters. There are so many studies showing a link between physical activity and reduction of depression, of burnout, of anxiety (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28993574/). Physical activity improves sleep as long as you don’t do it too close to bedtime. Physical activity improves just about every system in your body—cardio, endocrine, muscular.
I recently had a day where reading the news headlines left me feeling absolutely drained. I was reading them, feeling powerless, angry, frustrated, tired of the same old injustices playing out and feeling upset knowing that I could donate money, I could post about the issues to raise awareness, I could reach out to friends who were affected…but all of that was not going to make the issue go away. And if I’m really vulnerable? I felt such grief about that.
It was almost 90 degrees outside and humid, so not ideal conditions for walking, but I just threw on some clothes and left the house and did it. The heat and humidity made walking feel like a serious workout in many ways, and twenty minutes later I arrived home feeling sweaty and significantly better. Yes, the world was hurting in so many ways, but taking twenty minutes to walk moved me from feeling like everything was despondent and hopeless, to knowing that I was mentally all-in on doing everything I could to create a better world.
Don’t have access to a gym? Walking, walking, walking. If your body can tolerate it, add short runs (5-10 minutes), some push-ups, air squats, single leg lunges, and sit-ups can also help. Cost: Free.
4. Limit or avoid sugar. Insulin has a HUGE impact on how we feel, moment to moment. Research studies have found a connection between sugar consumption and depression (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-05649-7 ). There could be other confounding variables that tie sugar and depression together that are not taken into account in some studies, such as the fact that people in lower income brackets might find themselves relying on foods that are cheaper to process, and foods that are cheaper to process are often loaded with sugar and have less nutritional value.
However, just because stress from systemic factors is one variable that contributes to feelings of depression and anxiety, does not discount all variables that contribute, and one of those variables that contributes to depression and anxiety, is how much sugar someone chooses to consume when choices are available.
You know that sugar and insulin shifts have a huge affect on your mood if you’ve ever had a lot of sugar and felt a “sugar high” afterwards or a subsequent dip where you’re suddenly very, very tired. Swapping in water and swapping out soda can help. A canned fruit like peaches can come in sweetened syrup, or in regular old water. The dressed up coffee drinks from Starbucks are loaded with sugar, but a regular cup of coffee is not. Examine your diet and look at where you can limit or avoid sugar, and see what kind of response you have.
Cost: Free to examine your diet; flexible depending on what kind of swaps you make; less expensive if you make choices such as no longer drinking soda and only drinking water.
5. Use psychological tools like cognitive reframing. What is that? When you have thoughts such as, “I can’t do this” or “He/She/They never come through for me,” you can notice and then reframe those thoughts.
Like meditation, this is another tool that’s so often discussed in self-help that many assume there’s no psychological support for it, but in fact, there are multiple studies showing that cognitive reframing reduces depression and anxiety (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28809652/ and https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29535562/ are just two, for starters).
Here’s what cognitive reframing would look like: You notice the thoughts that are bringing you down. You write them down. You reframe them in a more positive direction. As I discuss in The Courage Habit, this is not simply reciting positive affirmations and hoping for the best.
Literally, what you’re doing is you’re taking a thought such as “He/She/They never come through for me,” and either notice that ‘never’ isn’t accurate (if it isn’t), or, acknowledge that it is accurate and reframe with statements such as, “Noticing that this person doesn’t come through for me hurts, and I’m going to make the tough choice to stop depending on them.”
Like most tools, this is one that feels awkward at first. Most people I’ve helped with this initially report that at first, their minds feel “blank” like they aren’t sure what reframes might be available. It takes practice, but if you make a point of just noticing thoughts during your regular day and asking yourself, “How might I reframe this?” you’ll get better at it. Cost: Free.
For me, the hardest part of any of these options is always choosing them. When I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed, I mentally and logically “want” to feel better, but my impulses work against me. I get a serious case of “I don’t wanna” and “I don’t feel like it” resistance that encourages me to do the opposite of everything that’s above. I know many people can relate to that feeling.
Yet this is what I know to be true: that we must fill our own well of resilience in order to do the work to create a world where others have the resources and space to increase their own resilience, too. When it feels extra difficult to take these steps, I remind myself that I’m not just taking them for myself. I’m taking them because the world needs all of us, working together.