We hear a lot about the downsides of stress. Too much of it can impair thinking, harm our health and, more prosaically, put us in a bad mood. But anyone who pontificates about the risks of chronic stress would be remiss in not pointing out that some measure of psychological tension is an important (not to mention unavoidable) part of life. The problem with stress for many of us is not its existence, but our inability to handle it. Luckily, we can train ourselves to make stress work for--rather than against--us.
The ability to harness the stress response in a constructive way is the biological definition of resilience. Scientists have discovered a number of ways to build resilience (see “Enhance Your Resilience,” by Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney, Scientific American Mind, July/August, 2013). One effective technique is to take on challenges that provoke moderate anxiety, such as speaking in front of a small group, and then gradually expose yourself to more vexing circumstances, such as confronting a larger audience. This technique is termed “stress inoculation.” It is based on the notion that exposure to increasingly difficult, but still-manageable challenges enables a person to handle more intense versions of the same. An athlete invokes a similar principle when he or she builds physical endurance by engaging in increasingly challenging workouts. Scientists are beginning to understand what happens in the brain when we inoculate ourselves against stress in this way.