Coping Well with Stress

Except for a few adrenaline junkies and chaos creators who are disinclined to solve their problems, most of us don’t like stress. At a minimum, it comes with unpleasant feelings and can easily contribute to health problems.

But it’s pretty much impossible to avoid all stress in our work and our lives.

Fortunately, there are some strategies that can help you cope well with a variety of stressors, and even turn some of the stress you inevitably experience into a positive boon.

Here are a few ideas to help you beat stress before it beats you:

Recognize the Cycle of Stress

One of the easiest ways to lessen the difficulty of dealing with stress is to recognize its pattern. In most cases, stress:

  • Begins when we first encounter a challenge, obstacle, or danger,
  • Manifests itself in an adrenalin rush and/or a physical surge of heightened awareness and activity, and eventually
  • Ends with a period of “down time” that allows for rest, repair, and recovery.

You generally can’t avoid these cycles. But you can ride with them, recognizing the need to prepare for the coming stressor, focusing on your efforts to handle it, and enjoying the aftermath that helps you return to a more even keel.

Take a Positive View

Much of the unpleasantness of stress comes from the commonplace notion that it’s something to be avoided. But there are stressors and stressful situations that contain some positive elements you might learn to welcome.

To begin, remember that many people believe “Anything that doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” From this perspective, a stressful situation may contain an opportunity to get better. For example, the stress of giving a public presentation can lead you to become more adept at conveying your ideas and persuading others to accept them. A heart attack can be a warning of the need to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

By focusing on the possible payoffs in a stressful situation, you may reduce some of the unpleasantness or fear that you’d otherwise feel.

Get Help

Going through a stressful situation alone is a lot more difficult than bringing some company with you. Even if the people to whom you reach out are not subject to the stressful situation, such as friends or family, they can contribute importantly to your emotional strength, your functional resources, and ultimately your ability to cope.

They can also make the stressful situation less threatening, more enjoyable, and easier to swallow. Just feeling their emotional support can soothe your nerves and dial down the level of stress you’re feeling.

Stay in the Moment

Part of the difficulty of dealing with stress comes from your own thoughts, particularly thoughts about what might happen in the future, about past unpleasantness you’ve experienced, and about how others might react to your handling of the current stressful situation.

But thoughts like these can only add to your level of stress.

You’ll be far better off staying in the moment, slaying each dragon as it attacks and refusing to invite extra dragons to enter the fray.   

Think Analytically

Stressful situations have two important dimensions: the level of stress, and the duration of the stress. Duration is potentially more important because even a low level of stress that lasts a long time can become debilitating and harmful.

When you think analytically about a stressful situation, you have a better chance of seeing it as a series of discrete stressful elements to individually address and resolve. This gives you a chance, from time to time, to “take a breather” before you must address the next stressful element.

The benefit of thinking analytically, then, is often to mitigate the harmfulness of a long-duration stressor by breaking it down into a series of shorter, more easily handled “moments of terror.”

Visualize the Post-Game

It’s helpful to stay in the moment rather than worry about the past and the future, and to think analytically rather than let your emotions dominate. But even so, you can usually gain a positive impact from visualizing your world once the stress is eventually removed.

The goal here is to give yourself something to shoot for: a “light at the end of the tunnel.” Now and then as you’re engaged in the stressful situation, think about how good you’ll feel when it’s over, how relaxed, how much more “in control.”

This positive vision will help you smooth over the emotional dips that can easily develop when you’re dealing with stress, and keep you more on the upbeat side of the spectrum for as long as possible.

Generally, stress can be mitigated and handled better when you can get your mind and heart to perceive the difficult situation more positively, mindfully, and analytically. The strategies I’ve given you here will help you cope better, no matter how much stress you must face.

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