Relax! Stress, if Managed, Can Be Good For You

You're aiming for stimulated and focused—but not frazzled.

When work gets overwhelming, Daniel Lobring picks up his drumsticks.

When work gets overwhelming, Daniel Lobring picks up his drumsticks.

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Biology undoubtedly plays a role in how easily you hit the target: A study published last year in the journal Cell found that mice that adapted poorly after being put in a cage with bigger, more aggressive mice produced larger amounts of stress-related brain chemicals than those that adapted well. But modifiable beliefs and expectations factor in, too. Expecting that your life will be unchanging, for example, is bound to make you react badly to dropping house values and a child's academic reversals, says psychologist Robert Rosen, author of Just Enough Anxiety, a new book that explains how anxiety can be a key to success in the workplace. "Buddhists have this idea that every time we breathe, the world changes," Rosen says. A philosophy of acceptance allows them to make peace with what they can't control—like an earthquake, inflation, or an oppressive political regime.

Successfully striking a balance between acceptance and that need for control is what most separates the healthfully stimulated from the stress crazed. The former feel like captains of their own ship, while the latter feel like passengers. Often, it's possible to seize control by breaking down a task: setting a monthly weight-loss plan of 1 to 2 pounds, for example, if you're trying to reach a 40-pound goal. Enlisting help from others as you coordinate that family reunion or race to meet a pressing deadline can also put the ship's wheel in your hands.

Playing tricks. Sometimes, Sternberg says, the trick "is to fool your brain into thinking that you have some degree of control." Researchers have shown that people produce more healthful levels of stress hormones when they're told they have control over a stressor, whether or not they actually act—they have the ability to press a button to stop a loud, irritating noise, say, even if they don't stop the noise. It's all about being proactive rather than placing blame—as much as we'd like to put it on our parents—or sitting back and feeling helpless.

You might find a way, for example, to limit your exposure to a stressor. Duke University stress researcher Redford Williams says he reduced his tension over having to deal with endless E-mail messages by simply deciding to stop constantly checking his PDA after hours. (Bonus: Ignoring the pesky E-mail eased a bit of stress in his marriage, too, he says, since he could tell from his wife's body language that "it wasn't good for our relationship.")

Or you might take a break to exert your mastery in other areas. Daniel Lobring, a 29-year-old public relations manager from Chicago, restores his "I can deal" feelings by picking up his drumsticks. He finds that drumming helps relieve stress headaches triggered by the pressures of organizing high-profile events for athletes and clients like ESPN. "I can only send out so many press releases and photos," he says, "and it's stressful, waiting and hoping that whatever I did will get some media coverage." With music, he explains, he knows his performance rests completely in his hands. Even in times of crushing catastrophes, people can find relief by doing something purposeful: donating blood or cash after 9/11 or the Chinese earthquake; buying energy-efficient light bulbs or a hybrid car to ease distress over global warming and rising gas prices.

Unless you're a natural-born optimist, of course, you may really have to work at seeing possibilities when times are tough. "The way to become more resilient is to live in the world, challenging yourself socially, psychologically, and intellectually," contends stress and resilience researcher Mary Steinhardt, a therapist and professor of health education at the University of Texas-Austin. In a study published in the January Journal of American College Health, she found that stressed-out college students who were given four weekly therapy sessions—focusing on coping strategies, self-esteem building, and making interpersonal connections—increased their "stress resilience," a measure of how quickly they bounce back after feeling stressed, far more than peers who didn't get the counseling.