The Last Stress-Survival Guide You'll Ever Need
Confronting Stress Head On
While an actual antistress serum is likely to remain in the realm of science fiction, in the real world there's a second-best alternative: stress-survival training. Think of it as going to a gym to build emotional muscles that will help you adapt to and deal with the daily worries, conflicts, and demands that drive you crazy.
With practice, stress-survival training will help you learn to distance yourself from your particular hair trigger (whether it's talking to the boss or dealing with meddlesome in-laws) in a way that turns down your stress response. Result? You'll be cooler, calmer, and way more effective. The training does not necessarily make those encounters pleasant -- they may even continue to be a bit scary -- but can transform them into building blocks you can use to up your immunity to stress's negative effects. Eventually, you'll be able to go on stress-busting autopilot every time your boss berates you or your in-laws get on your case.
That we can use the body's stress response in a positive way to prepare us for dealing with future immune and other stresses is backed up by research, according to Firdaus S. Dhabhar, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in California. His colleague, researcher Karen J. Parker, PhD, found that young monkeys exposed to stress early in their lives went on to explore new environments more freely and cling to their mothers less than those in a control group who had not been so exposed. The curious monkeys' stress hormone levels were significantly lower as well. Most tellingly, more than a year after these particular tests, the stress-exposed monkeys were still less anxious and had better coping skills than the control group. "Human and nonhuman primates have the ability to develop resistance to stress through exposure to mild, manageable, short-term challenges," says Dr. Parker.
This is the thinking behind what researchers call Stress Inoculation Training (SIT). The technique has been successfully adapted to help stressed-out stepfamilies, workers about to receive a job evaluation, nervous patients preparing for surgery, first-year law students unsure of their speaking skills, and many others under stress.
"You build up resistance by learning and acquiring and practicing the skills needed to go forward and cope," explains Donald Meichenbaum, PhD, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, who developed the technique. "It's not desensitization and not just the exposure, but learning, practicing, and internalizing the coping skills that will allow you, say, to speak comfortably in public."
You do so not by refusing to face -- or even think about -- a stress-inducing situation (a slacker coworker, for instance, or that endless car ride with three restless kids in the backseat, or family holiday get-togethers that can be pretty intense). Instead, you train yourself to rethink, reframe, and prepare yourself mentally and behaviorally. As a result, rather than being caught off-balance or taken by surprise, you possess the tools to respond with presence of mind.
The best way to master stress-survival skills is to focus on one specific stress trigger: Your coworker, your in-laws -- any situation will do. The idea is to learn the SIT steps until they become virtually automatic. Then you can apply them to the other areas that make you crazy.
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