When it comes to stress, perception is reality. What we hear, smell, feel and think immediately triggers our bodies’ chemical response. “The body and mind are not separate,” explains Melissa Blacker, MA, associate director of the stress reduction clinic at the Center for Mindfulness, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “What we think controls what happens in our bodies.”
So if you want to reduce stress, that’s good news. If your perceptions are stressing you out, changing your perceptions can calm you down. In fact, research shows that simply paying attention to the present moment without judging it — typically done through meditation and conscious breathing — slows breathing and improves your outlook.
It’s also helpful to know that there are simply individual differences in how we tolerate stress. New areas of research seek to understand whether certain genes or factors in our childhoods make some of us more “stress hardy.” Scientists are also pondering whether the X or Y chromosomes make a difference. Such research may someday explain why you struggle to keep up with demands in your life, while your best friend breezes through twice as much in a day.
But regardless of whether stress hardiness is genetic or learned, therapists say we can all learn from how stress-hardy folks see the world, improving our ability to handle challenging situations.
7 Ways to Reduce and Manage Stress
1. Make stress reduction a priority. “Most people are number 15 on their list of the top 10 things to do or take care of,” said Jane Ehrman, MEd, CHES, a mind-body medicine specialist at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “They just don’t think they are worth it.” That said, you need to be forgiving of yourself when it comes to carving out time for you: If your busy life is what’s making you stressed, it’s understandable that finding time for yourself will be difficult. Do it a little at a time.
2. Be in the present. In the middle of a stressful event, you might ruminate about the future (What is going to happen?) or anxiously review the past (How come I didn’t try harder?). Mindfulness teachers urge you to hit the pause button and come back to the present. One way to do so is to pay attention to what is happening in your body and mind right at that moment. Go ahead and give it a try now: Sit with your eyes closed and simply pay attention to your breath. Feel your belly, lungs and nostrils as you breathe in and out. As thoughts fly into your mind, notice and describe them (I’m thinking about my work now; I feel a bit hungry). Breathing practice is a first step toward being present in the moment.
If you have more time, try sitting for 10 minutes each day and paying attention to your breath and thoughts. Research shows that this type of mindfulness meditation slows your breathing rate, blood pressure and heart rate. It may also change the structure of your brain, increasing your ability to focus and remain calm in stressful situations. In 2005, Sara Lazar, PhD, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, researched brain changes that occur with mindfulness meditation. She found that brain regions associated with attention, sensory awareness and emotional processing are thicker in people who meditate than in those who don’t, indicating an apparent reversal of age-related thinning and signifying that our brains can be rewired through meditation.
3. Use your senses. Imagery, too, can help reduce stress. Because images can trigger powerful bodily responses (think about how your mouth waters and your stomach growls when you see a photo of a delicious-looking meal), they can induce a calming reflex as well. For stress reduction, place a photo of a favorite vacation spot in a place where you can easily see it every day. Then take five minutes each day to imagine what it looks, feels, smells and sounds like to be there. “The more you make time for this, after a while your body starts to expect to feel better, and then just thinking about that place lets your body go, ‘aah,’” Ehrman explains.
4. Think positively. Another thing that gets in the way of handling stressful situations: your own negative thoughts. Rather than add to the stress of a situation with self-doubt (I don’t know how I’m going to finish this), stop that track and put on another song. First, ask, Is this thought causing me stress? Second, ask, Is it logical? If it’s both stressful and illogical, reframe the thought into a positive affirmation and repeat it often throughout the day.
5. Be curious. Instead of approaching stressful events worrying about how things should be, let go of expectations; allow yourself to be curious, and think, I wonder how this will be. That way, Blacker says, you can drop the anxiety and fear that often accompany expectations and enjoy the unknown.
6. Find meaning. Research shows that while most people suffer during big stressful events, as many as 15 percent of the people involved do just fine. While it’s unclear if stress hardiness comes from a gene, childhood experiences or a sunny outlook, stress-hardy people tend to find meaning in their activities, viewing difficulties such as tending for a sick child as part of larger overall plan.
7. Keep troubles in perspective. You can breed stress hardiness by focusing on the problem at hand (I’m not feeling well today or I had a bad game) rather than making generalizations (Oh no, do I have the flu? or I’m not good at sports)