Four ways to improve your ability to cope with stress and adversity

Expert advice you can implement to ensure your psychological immune system is functioning at its best

Our minds are more resilient than we know. According to a growing body of research, first popularised by psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Tim Wilson in the early 2000s, the brain has a remarkable capacity to make the best of bad events: when we encounter negative situations we subconsciously activate what is known as our psychological immune system.

A self-protective mechanism analogous to the body’s own immune system, the psychological immune system is a series of processes that our brain initiates to help us make sense of the adverse environment we might be in, assign meaning to what is happening, and ultimately find positives for the future. If we fail to land a job we had wanted, for instance, our brain might reason that the interviewer was rude and biased, therefore it wasn’t the role for us. Or, we will speak to a friend and gain a new perspective on the benefits of our existing job.

Gilbert and Wilson’s research has found that we often overestimate how unhappy we will be after negative events, since our psychological immune system helps to shelter us from the effects of difficult circumstances. “We underestimate how quickly our feelings are going to change in part because we underestimate our ability to change them,” Gilbert once told the Monitor on Psychology magazine. “This can lead us to make decisions that don’t maximise our potential for satisfaction.”

Since we are so skilled at construing what happens to us in a positive light, our lack of faith in our own resilience leads us to incorrectly expect that negative emotions will always last longer than our less-intense feelings. If we can strengthen our psychological immune system, there might be ways that we can better rely on ourselves in times of difficulty, as well as feel more comfortable in taking risks.


“The psychological immune system is an incredible buffer against the inevitable stresses of life,” author and resilience expert Anne Grady says. “It doesn’t prevent bad things from happening to us, but if we can learn to develop it, we can put our brain back in control and monitor our responses.”

To prepare for when you next find yourself in a tough situation, we asked experts about the daily practices and tips that people can implement to ensure their psychological immune system is functioning at its best.

Move from negative to neutral

Our brains have a negativity bias, which means that we focus on bad experiences more than positive ones. “This is because being wary of danger and potential difficulty keeps us safe from harm,” says Dr Joseph Barker, a clinical psychologist. “Whereas, in evolutionary terms, being contented for prolonged periods makes us more likely to slack off and less motivated to move on to the next goal.”

In order to allow our psychological immune system to kick in and move us away from this negativity, rather than feel trapped, Grady suggests “using the mind to change the brain” and developing habits we can turn to in stressful situations. “One technique is to change the narrative we are telling ourselves, since our beliefs can be very powerful in shifting our mindset,” she says. “Rather than leaping from a negative situation to positive self-talk, which will feel too challenging, we can try to move ourselves to a neutral zone, where we are more likely to feel that we are at least okay in the moment.”

That neutral zone can help us feel relaxed and more able to access the parasympathetic nervous system, which is known as our “rest and digest mode”, and is activated when our bodies are not in fight or flight. Grady uses mantras to move to neutral and remind herself that she can weather the storm. She places sticky notes around her house with phrases such as “It is what it is” to keep her grounded, and she also mentions the importance of building a list of “safety signals” that she can turn to for reassurance.

“You have to find what works for you, then create resources you can access when you’re in situations of heightened stress,” she says. This can include reminding yourself of aspects of your life to be grateful for, since practising gratitude has been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as remembering other difficult events that you have already got through to highlight your existing resilience. Taking several long, deep breaths has also been shown to reduce stress and lower the heart rate, allowing us to reach that neutral point of calm.

Access the present moment

Another key aspect of bolstering the psychological immune system is to try to be in the present moment. “We have to focus on what we can control, rather than getting trapped in ruminations and potentially spiralling,” Dr Barker says. “One of the best ways is through mindfulness exercises.”

Typically taking the form of guided meditations or structured practice, mindfulness encourages participants to focus on their breath, bodily sensations and an awareness of their surroundings, before accepting their thoughts and feelings without judgment. Studies have found that it is an effective therapy for reducing stress and Grady recommends that the smaller the positive you can focus on the better, from a hug to a good sip of coffee.

“It’s about starting with where you are in life and trying to acknowledge that whatever is happening might not be all consuming,” counsellor Natasha Clewley says. “It’s not a dismissal of the experience, but placing it in context.”

Dr Barker also emphasises the importance of healthy sleep patterns. “It’s quality not just quantity when it comes to sleep, since we need to make sure we’re getting the right amount of different sleep stages,” he says. “A set sleep routine can restore cognitive function and reset the psychological immune system.” Research has shown that good sleep helps not only the body’s immune system but is key to maintaining mental health by allowing our cognitive skills to function properly and therefore respond to stressors.

Developing a general routine for daily life can help the psychological immune system when we find ourselves going through distressing events. “Since we have a tendency to overestimate how difficult things can be, a set routine gets us out of bed and step by step will interrupt this negative prediction cycle, making us feel more motivated to carry on,” Dr Barker says.

Find your meaning

Life is often unpredictable and full of moments that can destabilise us. For Grady, life is like the ocean and there are times where swimming through it can feel treacherous and choppy. That is when we need a “lighthouse” to aim towards – a goal to keep us focused and to give the wider arc of our behaviour and experiences a sense of purpose.

“Having an end in sight helps us feel more committed to the journey, even if it might be difficult at times,” she says. “By trying to emphasise meaning and purpose in our lives, we have a reason for what we do.”

Dr Barker explains that by making decisions based on our values, rather than being guided by what might make us feel good in the short term, we will feel more fulfilled and more likely to persist through difficulty. “You might avoid giving a presentation at work because it fills you with anxiety,” he says. “But if you see it as something that could help your career and you choose to do it for that reason, you will be much more able to get through it.”

Ultimately, it is a matter of perspective. “Reappraising our reality, by talking it over with a friend or even thinking about whether we will care about this incident in a few months’ or years’ time, interrupts our ruminations,” Dr Barker says. “Finding compassion for ourselves is the best state to allow our psychological immune system to operate.”

Practise acceptance

Compassion is key when our psychological immune system feels stuck. “That occurs in situations of trauma or prolonged distress, such as bereavement,” Dr Barker says. In these instances, tips and tricks can feel trite or even make the situation worse by suggesting that we can think our way out of our difficulties. At these moments, it is important to simply acknowledge our emotions, Grady explains.

“Give yourself permission to sit in the discomfort and allow it to happen, otherwise if you battle with it you can magnify it,” she says. “Try to remind yourself that your emotions have a purpose, that if you’re grieving, for instance, the sadness you feel is connected to the person you loved.”

If we don’t acknowledge the difficulty of these emotions, we might fall into the trap of toxic positivity. A relatively new psychological concept, toxic positivity is the pressure to remain upbeat, no matter how tough a situation is, which can make it harder to cope by suppressing otherwise natural emotions.

Instead, if we allow these emotions to come to the fore, we can begin the process of understanding our situation and assessing where we are. Sometimes, we might realise our psychological immune systems can only do so much at that time and we need to seek help such as therapy or medication. “The psychological immune system is ultimately just a fancy term for how we cope,” Clewley says. “That is all we can try to do, and we need to give ourselves the best chance possible, whatever that means for you.” – Guardian