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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Are You Dealing With Stress the Wrong Way?

Think about the last day you had when things just didn’t go your way. You couldn’t get through a never-ending barrage of emails; you got in an argument with a co-worker; you got stuck in traffic on your way home.

How did you deal? Did you dwell on your stress when you got home? Or did you find a way to let it go?

A recent study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that your answers to these questions could actually determine health consequences you experience 10 years from now.

"I like to think of people as being one of two types," said David Almeida, a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State who was one of the study’s authors. "With Velcro people, when a stressor happens it sticks to them; they get really upset and, by the end of the day, they are still grumpy and fuming. With Teflon people, when stressors happen to them they slide right off. It's the Velcro people who end up suffering health consequences down the road." Consequences, the study shows, that include chronic health problems like arthritis and cardiovascular issues.

So how can a Velcro person be a bit more Teflon? The study didn’t explore this question, but I think most of us struggle with some degree of Velcro brain from time to time. (There’s a reason why the Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff became one of the fastest selling books of all time in the 90s.) Here are a few ways you can begin to train your brain to take on some more Teflon qualities.

Acknowledge the Good

First of all, it’s not entirely our fault that, at the end of the day, it can feel like our brains are cable news channels hardwired to sensationalize the bad news and downplay the good.

According to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, we can blame evolution for our bias toward negativity. It’s a survival mechanism—our ancestors needed to know how to, say, catalogue the threat of a tiger so that the next time they saw the predator, they could hide.

So how can we work around this? “For starters, be mindful of the degree to which your brain is wired to make you afraid,” Hanson writes, “and wired to zero in on any apparent bad news in a larger stream of information… to tune out or de-emphasize reassuring good news, and to keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which 100 small things happened, 99 of which were neutral or positive.”

In other words, do your best to focus on the positive moments in your day. If it’s your natural tendency to come home and think about a frustrating conversation with a co-worker, try to balance that by thinking about the kind words of a friend during lunch.

This doesn’t mean you have to sugar-coat your life or not acknowledge when things get tough. But there are ways, even in your most stressful moments, to realize that you have things to be grateful for.

Find a Teflon Role Model

For those of us who skew more stressed, it can be easy to look at someone who is all smiles and good vibes and think—Well, they’re just not as stressed out as I am. But chances are, they’re dealing with just as much stress, they’re just coping with it differently.

These Teflon people are all around us. They’re the ones who don’t get caught up in petty arguments. They’re the ones who don’t dwell on the negativity in their lives.

For a remarkable example of this mentality, check out this video about Rockaway, Queens residents on Election Day. Resident Chantilly Joachim—who has just lost her house to flooding—speaks about how happy she is that the Rockaway community is sticking together. She has somehow managed to not let the stress of losing her house dampen her spirit.

Look around your office, your community, and in the stories you hear every day. Notice people who seem to be handling stress a little more effectively than you are. Maybe it’s the guy at the cubicle next to you who manages to take 30 minutes away from his desk for lunch each day. Or a friend who works out her stress at kickboxing class once a week.

Sometimes they’re giving you advice without saying a thing.

Be Kind to Yourself

Let’s face it: Stress can often be a product of that inner critic reminding us of the things we did wrong today. We often criticize ourselves about things that we would forgive in others.

But researchers at Duke and Wake Forest Universities found that people who were able to practice self-compassion and not “beat themselves up” were much better suited to handle negative events in their lives.

Scientist Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion, has even developed a test to see how self-compassionate you are and exercises to increase self-compassion. “When we soothe our agitated minds with self-compassion, we’re better able to notice what’s right as well as what’s wrong, so that we can orient ourselves toward that which gives us joy,” Neff writes in “Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem.”

The idea is that, when you’re kind to yourself, you’re much better able to take life—with its ups and its downs—in stride.

It can be easy, in our culture, to look to the “Teflon people” who aren’t stressed out and think they’re just different than you are. But those people are just a little better at turning off their Velcro brains. They’re probably a little better at remembering the good news of their days. And they’re probably a little nicer to themselves.

But with a little self-awareness, you can teach yourself to do the same.

Photo of happy woman courtesy of Shutterstock.