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.
Steinhardt suggests pausing when stress hits to simply recognize its source, whether it's an unrealistic deadline, a family reunion, or an inflating mortgage. Focusing your attention on the problem is key to identifying what you can control and accepting what you can't and to preventing a panicked reaction from developing unchecked. If you're not in a panic, you can offer yourself some coaching: Is anger going to be productive? Are you really (choose one): a bad employee, the black sheep of the family, someone completely incapable of handling personal finances?