Don’t let stress rule your life

ESCANABA – You learn that you are among the top three candidates for a job, and the final selection will be determined by your performance in a 30-minute presentation. As you get ready for this presentation, do you consider it a stress or a challenge?

In the words of William James, a noted 19th century American philosopher and psychologist, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” If you think of it as stressful, it undoubtedly will be.

Job opportunities do not come around every day, but opportunities to feel stress do. There are the pressures of daily lifea traffic jam on the way to work, an impossible deadline, a child with a fever who can’t go to day care.

There are bigger pressures that occur from time to time: marital conflict, the loss of a job, the death of a close friend. And from time to time, we may get caught up in a major traumatic event over which we have no control, such as a tornado, flood or random act of violence.

Stress is usually thought of as an enemy, but any event, even a positive one, can be stressful. Having a baby is a wondrous event; but it can be highly stressful. Sometimes you feel stressed out for seemingly no reason at all. And what is perceived as stressful varies widely from person to person.

A series of studies by Yale psychologists [2013] focused on the role of “mindset” in determining whether an event is experienced as stressful or challenging. If you have a negative mindset, that traffic jam on the highway is part of your stressful lifestyle. If you have a positive mindset, it’s an opportunity to relax and listen to music.

When students in an undergraduate psychology class, were given a stressful assignment, those with a positive mindset responded with an optimal release of cortisol, a major stress hormone. As a result, they were better able to handle the assignment. They were also more likely to grow from the experience by seeking feedback on how well they had performed. So the benerfits were both physical and behavioral.

In sports, we think of positive mindset as confidence. When Lebron James takes a last second shot to determine a national championship, he doesn’t feel stress because he knows it is going to go in (even if it doesn’t always). Coaches teach that players who succeed have confidence in their own ability and confidence in the ability of their teammates. It’s all a way of managing stress and improving performance.

Repeated missed shots can undermine confidence, of course, just as repeated traffic jams can. If you let confidence sag, you not only go into a downward spiral yourself, but your slump tends to rub off on your fellow workers, family members or team-mates.

University of Texas researcher Marci Gleason has focused on the stress generation theory. In her view, stress begets more stress. Persons who worry overly much and over-react have more negative things happen to them compared to those with a more distant attitude and personality. And, over time, they develop an aura of negativity that affects their relationships with those who might otherwise be supportive.

Again, it comes back to the advice of William James: choosing one thought over another. Take charge of your thoughts and your emotions. If you can’t change the situation, change your reaction to it.

A major factor in dealing with stress is the feeling of being in control. Contrary to popular belief, powerful leaders have lower levels of stress hormones and less anxiety than those working under them who face the same situation but have less control over it.

Control is crucial, and there are practical things you can do to exert control over the stressors in your life. Control your schedule by setting priorities, learning to say no and, whenever possible, delegating responsibility. Accept things you can’t change and move on, looking for the positive side of the situation.

Get plenty of sleep. Studies show that persons who start the day in a bad mood have a more negative frame for interpreting what happens to them during the day. And they react in a way that triggers negative reactions from others. It’s a vicious cycle.

Exercise regularly; it’s the most effective way for dealing with pent-up tension. Eat a healthy diet and try to avoid emotional crutches such as caffeine, sugar, nicotine and alcohol. They can make matters worse rather than better.

Stay in touch with a core of friends and family who can provide understanding and support. Finally, if you feel overwhelmed, seek help from a qualified mental health professional.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Grace Borkadi is a certified physician assistant with OSF Medical Group. She sees patients in Suite 103 of the OSF Medical Office Building.