5 Proven Ways to Handle Stress
The ability to manage and even learn and grow from stress directly benefits your performance, your relationships, as well as your health. At our executive health center, we did wellness assessments in over six hundred senior level corporate executives. We found these high achievers, who inevitably take on a large amount of stress, are remarkably good at it: on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the optimal self-rating of how they respond to stress, their median response was 3.
Successful people have stress resilience. Like a stretched rubber band snapping back to its original form, they have an above average capacity to bounce back from stress. But stress resilience isn’t an innate trait limited to this select group. Resilience is common, and we can all learn skills that make us more resilient.
Biologically, resilience dynamically changes throughout our life. When we are at our most resilient, our body buffers stress hormones. Instead of letting cortisol get out of hand and wreak havoc, we maintain it in an optimal range. We do so by releasing a higher ratio of hormones that counter cortisol’s damaging effect, such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). We also release more of the chemical messengers that put the brakes on our “fight-or-flight” response. As a result, developing resilience helps keep our stress hormones in a healthy range. Some research shows that resilience may even favorably alter the expression of our genes.
Numerous studies on people who are resilient indicate that they share certain characteristics in common, all of which can be learned:
They see the cup half full
Among the most important of the traits shared by people who are good at stress is optimism. Optimists have a general expectation that good things will happen. Their positive attitude allows them to perceive a stressful situation in a productive way. Unlike pessimists, they don’t anticipate failure, nor take personal blame for unfortunate outcomes. One way you can learn to be more optimistic is to tune into your thinking pattern. When you catch yourself in negative self-doubt, try to substitute positive “self-talk.” For example, instead of listening to voices in your head that make you worry about failing at a task, tell yourself instead that you’ll give it your best try.
They find the “gift” in situations
Two simple words — thank you — can similarly change your cortisol response to stress. By being thankful for what you have, you take your mind off what you don’t have. You can get in the habit of practicing gratitude by counting your blessings, acknowledging acts of kindness, and appreciating the beauty of nature.
They value and invest in relationships
Being social does not necessarily mean being the life of the party or making Facebook friends. Even though those can be helpful, to build resilience, it is more important to nurture supportive and trusting relationships. Love, empathy, and support release the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin. Oxytocin not only causes us to seek social support but dampens our reactivity to stress. You can, therefore, think of loving and being loved as a natural antidote to stress. So powerful is social support that its effect on life expectancy appears to be as strong as the consequences of obesity, cigarette smoking, and level of physical activity.
They feel in control of their choices
If you believe you can influence events and outcomes in your life, you have what is called an internal “locus of control.” If you feel that the outcome of events are not contingent on your actions or you tend to blame external forces, such as luck, chance, or fate, you have an external locus of control. Generally, resilient people have an internal locus of control.
In a study of over 1000 workers exposed to the same work setting, externals, compared to internals, tended to perceive more sources of stress and more job strain. They had lower job satisfaction and more physical and psychological symptoms of stress.
You can develop more of an internal locus by realizing that you always have a choice. Even if you can’t change external events, you can still choose how you respond to them.
They follow a path that is meaningful to them
People who have a strong sense of purpose are better able to handle life’s ups and downs. By finding meaning in their lives, they continue to feel life satisfaction even when they encounter obstacles.
If, like many people, you are frustrated that your life lacks meaning, it’s time to stop drifting. Ask yourself, when have you felt most passionate in your life? How do you want to make a difference in the world? Those answers can be your driving force to handling adversity and regaining your health.