Mind over meltdown

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WHY ARE SOME OF us immune to stress, while others buckle under pressure at the first opportunity? It's all in how we look at it. Those of us who are resilient to negative stress seem to rise to a challenge instead of fearing it. "Stress hardiness is not an inborn trait, nor one that's reserved for the old and wise — it's a life skill we can all benefit from learning," says Toronto-based corporate consultant Bina Feldman. "The possibility of being stress-free is unrealistic; the possibility of being stress-hardy is not." How we think has a strong effect on our physiology, so it's important to build the mental habits that make us stress-resistant. Here are the mindset adjustments that can have the biggest impact on your life.

be a problem solver
Does criticism put you in a funk or spur you to improve your productivity and attitude? If you take action now, you can avoid future stress and conflict. "Effective stress management is about early intervention, not crisis intervention," says Feldman. This tactic also allows you to manage your time better rather than leaving things to the last minute.

get in the game
Feeling disempowered or victimized produces enormous distress. Don't make it worse by turning your power over to others. Whether you're making a major investment, health or work decision, study your options. Participate, speak up and be involved.

embrace change
When change is viewed as a threat, rather than a natural part of life, anxiety levels rise. But perceiving a promotion or move as an exciting possibility (or at least not a major headache) keeps you from getting mired down by stress. "When you can anticipate and plan for change, you feel empowered and better able to cope with whatever comes your way," says Feldman.

form strong relationships
A recent study found that the CEOs who managed stress best were those with support systems. "Part of their stress hardiness came from their deep interpersonal connections with other people," says James Campbell Quick, Ph.D., a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Institute of Stress.

Women are more likely to seek social support in stressful times, such as calling a friend to discuss marital woes or even asking for directions. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, dubbed it the "tend and befriend" response, and they suspect it might be a reason that women outlive men.

just say no
Don't take on every task that is asked of you; instead, reasonably guard and protect your time and energy. "You function best when your energy is very focused," explains Jim Loehr, Ed.D., co-author of The Power of Full Engagement. "The more you multitask, the more you split your energy signal and diminish your power and effectiveness."

set short-term goals
Endless vacations are tempting, but not what we were designed for. As long as we aren't completely overburdened, meeting deadlines keeps us vibrant. "We are a mission-specific species," says Loehr. "When we no longer have a mission in front of us, our energy becomes increasingly chaotic and disorganized."

set long-term goals
You might have a mission for today or this month, but do you know where you want to be in five or 10 years? Long-term goals provide focus and clarity. At the heart of goal setting is possessing a clear purpose in life. Determine what your purpose is — having a strong marriage, a fulfilling career, financial stability or deep spiritual connection — then map out steps that will help you achieve it.

grow up
Whether it's doing yoga, learning Spanish or making more time for the kids, getting what you want takes work. "Discipline comes from the willpower to make ourselves do the right thing just as we make our children do what they must do," declares Quick. Let the adult in you take control of your inner child, he says, "but be merciful on yourself when you fail."

let go
You don't have control over a co-worker's laziness or your infant's crying jags, but you can control your reaction to them. Acknowledging that certain things are beyond your dominion is a tremendous stress reliever. If you accept that your baby — like all babies — will cry, then her wails will aggravate you a lot less.

look on the bright side
"Seeing the positive side of reality has a calming and challenging effect, while seeing the pessimistic side is threatening — it scares us and our bodies," says Quick. You can become an optimist by acting like one: Faced with a problem, don't catastrophize the situation. Instead, visualize positive solutions.

practice, practice, practice
"Chronic stress has the ability to tip the scales if you have a genetic tendency to a health problem, such as depression or high blood pressure," cautions Feldman. "It also has the stand-alone ability to make you sick." So take stress seriously — and practice these tension-busting tips every day.

get physical
While you're getting your mind in gear, don't forget to bring your body along for the ride. Exercise is a wonderful way to perk up or calm down, just a brisk 10-minute walk increases your energy, while vigorous exercise, such as 30 minutes of Spinning or running, reduces tension and invigorates both mind and body.

"When you're deciding what type of exercise to do and how hard to do it, look at how you want to feel afterward," says Robert Thayer, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California State University, Long Beach, and the author of Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise. "If it's at the end of a hard, stressful day, a strenuous workout may be the best way to deal with that."

Because stress and exercise have similar effects on the body, such as increased heart and respiration rates, it's not surprising that working out trains you to handle stress. "Exercise is really stress practice," says Jim Loehr, Ed.D. "Increasing your capacity for tolerating physical stress deepens your capacity for tolerating all stress." By pushing outside your comfort zone — on the weight bench or the treadmill — you become stronger physically and more stress-hardy.

Exercise gives you endurance and sustained energy, both of which are critical in dealing with stress. When a project calls for long hours in front of the computer, the stamina you build by going to the gym helps you meet your deadline. Physical activity also quickens response time, so you feel sharper and more "on your game."

"Your tension may increase slightly at the start of a strenuous workout," says Thayer. "But the final result will be a calmness that will last for hours."

Convinced? Turn to "Strong, Serene & Centered" on page 88 for a mood-lifting workout. But don't overlook the flip side of exercise and stress management. "If you don't have recovery after stress exposure — whether it's biceps curls or rush-hour traffic — you don't get any growth," says Loehr.

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By Sarah Bowen Shea

Photo Illustration by Jonathan Barkat

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