Stress is something that is all too common in our lives. Stressors can come from anywhere in our daily living: from work deadlines to physical illness, from a busy family life to a packed social calendar, from bills to pay to a traffic jam when we’re late. We know that some of these can bounce off us, while others may impact our overall wellbeing. And it’s not the same for all of us, but even it’s not the same for us all the time. It all depends on our stress threshold. But do we know what it is and where it sits, before we crash into it?
Our stress threshold can be imagined as a virtual line within which we can successfully deal with stressors in our lives, beyond which stress starts to negatively impact our wellbeing.
This threshold changes from person to person and there isn’t an optimal level to achieve. Some people might be better equipped to deal with stress and so can sustain more of it, while others are more likely to be affected by smaller amounts of stress. There’s nothing wrong with it, as long as we know what our limits are, and so we can maintain our wellbeing within those limits.
But our stress threshold is not something fixed even for ourselves, as it can change from time to time, even from day to day. So it’s common that stress hits us in a weak moment when our threshold is lowered unexpectedly, thus affecting our mental and physical wellbeing.
Knowing where our limit lies can help us ensure we don't surpass it - or pile on the stress past our threshold - but can we do anything to increase our personal thresholds, or expand the limit in hard times of stress?
In short, yes. Our cognitive resources are our secret weapon here.
Here are three simple steps we can take to better use our cognitive resources to improve our mental resilience and raise our stress threshold.
First, we can use our thinking abilities to prevent stress from occurring, by blocking our potential stressors. For example, try to use your organisational skills to improve the planning of your daily activities: keep a diary to manage your time, to keep track of both formal and informal appointments and any tasks you need to complete. This way the stress of deadlines will be taken under control, and last-minute rushes or forgotten appointments are not likely to become stressors for us.
Also, we can exercise our ability to process memories and past experiences by reviewing them rationally. Try to take note of any significant experiences that could potentially become a stressor for you and analyse these deeply: what was the cause? Is there anything you could have done differently? What wasn’t under your control? What have you learnt? Is there a positive side to what happened? Make sure the process leads you to the point of letting go of past mistakes or negative events in a constructive way, rather than just ruminating on those and being overburdened by them.
Similarly, if we have strong executive function we are more likely to be ready to face the unexpected and so, rather than being stressed and feared about the future, we can play with it. Exercise your executive function skills by thinking creatively about different scenarios of a situation, and what the consequences of different actions will be. Be proactive towards problems and think of possible solutions in case they might occur, so that you avoid the stress of catastrophizing when you face the real challenge.
As a second step, cognition allows us to control our emotional response to stress when it comes through. Some stressors will always go beyond our ‘no stress’ barrier and we are all likely to experience some stress at some point in our lives. But how we react to stress makes a difference, whether we cope with it or get drowned by it.
Our executive functions allow us to exercise self-control and regulate emotions towards stress so that the impact of stress on us will be minimised. For example, if our car breaks down in the middle of a busy day, it’s likely we will feel stressed by it, but we can control our reaction to that stress by employing our cognitive abilities. We risk being overwhelmed by feelings of anger, frustration or confusion about what to do, but we reroute the emotions when we can problem-solve well, a new solution in the easiest way possible, evaluate alternative ways to carry out our day and try to see the good side of the whole situation or allow yourself a moment to feel frustration and then try to move forward.
Last but not least, if we are aiming to maintain a high stress threshold, we need to cultivate healthy life habits for our brain health. At this point, we might be tired of being told to eat well, drink plenty of water, ensure good sleep at night, exercise regularly, and nurture positive relationships. But if we don’t fuel our brain and body properly and don’t take care of them, they will not be able to have our back when we need it. When we are not at the top of ourselves, we cannot really demand our brain to successfully cope with all those stressors, to the point that even the smallest of things could end up triggering us.
Final thought - don’t demand too much from yourself.
Those of us who have a very high stress threshold may end up being most at risk of burnout. This might sound counterintuitive, as having a high stress threshold protects us from stress, rather than putting us at risk. The point is that going from the top to the lowest level of resilience to stress is possible. If we have very good thinking abilities and very high resilience to stress, we will tend to allow a large amount of potentially stressful situations to come into our life. We just don’t recognise them as potential stressors, as we are very good at managing them. But our stress threshold can weaken a bit at some point for any reason, just a bad cold could make it lower. It would be still a high threshold comparatively, but it might not be enough to sustain all the heavy burdens we have put in our lives. Therefore, avoid living always on the limit of your stress threshold: if you have a high one, save it for the most challenging moment only.