Have you ever watched someone who thrives under stress? You know the ones: Where you see a crushing workload, they see an exciting challenge. Where you see a scary path into uncharted territory, they see an adventure.
Maybe they know that at least part of the solution to beating the negative impact of stress—which can cause weight gain, heart disease, depression and anxiety—is in how you cope with it. “The absence of stress is boredom, so some stress is desirable,” says Robert Maunder, MD, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. “And while stress that is too intense is rarely going to be positive, there are positive ways that you can deal with it.” Here are seven simple ways to boost your stress-busting skills.
1. Turn worry into problem-solving
“Worry is the process of imagining painful, even catastrophic outcomes, with no effective planning for prevention,” says Matthew McKay, one of the authors of The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook. Focus on potential solutions to short-circuit worrying. “Cognitively, it’s the difference between thinking about success versus focusing on failure.” In the book, McKay and his co-authors suggest this exercise.
- Clearly define the problem. For instance, “I feel overburdened at work because I have too many project deadlines all in the same month.”
- Brainstorm to find solutions.
- Evaluate each idea, putting an X next to those that aren’t possible, a question mark next to the ones that are difficult to do, and a Y next to the steps you could take right now.
- Set specific dates by which you’ll complete your Y ideas.
- Revisit your question marks once you’ve successfully completed the Y’s. Are some of the question marks now possible?
- Finally, go back to the X’s—are they really impossible?
2. Keep it civil
Rude behavior isn’t just a nuisance, it’s a significant source of stress and anxiety. A 2008 U.S. study of more than 1,500 men and women found that workplace incivility negatively affected the mental and physical health of victims of sarcasm, disparagement or the silent treatment. The surprise? Those who worked with the victims were also less healthy. “It could be the result of the ‘co-victimization experience’ of witnessing the incivility, or the fear that they could be the next victim,” says study co-author Sandy Lim of the National University of Singapore. Foster a respectful workplace atmosphere to reduce everyone’s stress.
3. Be your own devil’s advocate
If you’re spending time worrying about something that hasn’t yet happened, try this strategy to dial down your anxiety. After a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast—two stress-busters your mom was correct about—write down your worry. Then ask yourself, What is the worst thing that could happen to me if what I want to happen doesn’t, or what I don’t want to happen does? Then ask yourself: What good things might occur if what I want to happen doesn’t, or what I don’t want to happen does? Think about the positive thoughts or emotions you can tap into now that you’ve imagined alternative outcomes.
4. Go deeper
Negatives aren’t always to be dreaded. When it comes to corn crops, for instance, a dry start to the growing season can be beneficial because it causes roots to grow deeper as they search for water. Is there a similar upside to whatever situation is causing you stress? Instead of focusing on the lack of rain, see if you can articulate the strengths you’re building by “looking for water.” Finding personal meaning and value in the experience can make a stressful situation more tolerable, says Maunder.
5. Build in stimulation
New research on the brain from Princeton University shows that chronic stress can actually cause brain damage because brain cells stop regenerating. The good news? A stimulating environment can help heal that damage by boosting cell regeneration. Doug Saunders, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the University of Toronto, suggests an activity he calls “creating islands of peace.” Choose an activity you enjoy, one that engages your brain in such a way that time passes almost without you being aware of it. It could be running, gardening or doing a crossword: anything that takes your mind’s focus away from your stress. “It’s the equivalent of being in a light trance, and it’s a way of giving your mind and body the opportunity to recover from the fight-or-flight effects of chronic stress,” he says. Want to boost the stress-busting effect? Opt for an activity that has physical as well as mental benefits. A 2008 British study of almost 20,000 adults found that those who exercised daily—even simply walking—were 41 percent less likely than non-exercisers to be highly stressed.
6. Inspire yourself
While some may find reading the stories of others helpful in coping with stress, Maunder suggests looking for inspiration even closer to home. “It’s useful to step back and reflect on your own past successes in coping with difficulty,” he says. “That process helps you to say, ‘I’ve dealt with lots of things well enough in the past. How do I deal with this?’”
7. Share the burden
A 2007 study by researchers at Austria’s Medical University of Graz found that short-term behavioral group therapy effectively helped men who were stressed by overwork to lower their blood pressure and reduce overall stress. “Setting structure within your daily life and gaining support from family and friends to take on new activities can both help as you try to create new, more effective ways to deal with your stress,” says Saunders.
Four steps to dealing positively with a stressful situation
1. Assess it. “Stress comes both from real demands and from the internal experience of how you perceive those demands,” says Saunders. How you respond to stress will depend on how you rate your resources, both internal (“I can knock this assignment off in an evening”) and external (“My friend Beth is great at this—she could help me out”) in response to that crisis. If you perceive you have the resources to cope, your stress level may not increase.
2. Change it. If your resources are lacking, you may need to take concrete steps to change things.
3. Cope with it. If you can’t change things, “you move on to emotion-focused coping, where the focus is not on making the problem better but on making yourself feel better about what you can’t change,” says Maunder.
4. Learn from it. For significant or persistent stress, coping emotionally might not be enough. In the most extreme kinds of stress—a parent’s chronic illness perhaps—it’s most effective to find a deep personal meaning or value in what you have been through, says Maunder. “Often, you’ll hear people say, ‘I wouldn’t have wished it on anyone, but it brought us together as a family.’ That’s an example of that kind of coping.”
October 2008 issue of Best Health magazine