It turns out that maybe you can, even though there’s no vaccine yet. The first trick is to differentiate between the stress you can control and the stress you can’t control—otherwise known as escapable and inescapable stress. A recent study involving rats and stress was reported in Scientific American’s Scicurious blog (It’s not the stress that counts, it’s whether you can control it).
A stress that you can control is a very different one from a stress that you can’t….[A] controllable stress is actually a good event. Not only does it blunt the impact of the stressor itself, it can be protective against the detriments of future uncontrolled stresses. Scientists call this “behavioral immunization” against future stress.
When you escape from the escapable stress, the neurons in your prelimbic cortex become more responsive (or excitable), and that seems to help us adapt to future stress. It’s sort of like building up good stress karma—a future reward for doing something we don’t necessarily want to do right now. Put the time in on the treadmill now and you’ll feel better and have more energy later. Mary Pritchard, a psychology professor at Boise State University who blogs for the Huffington Post, says this is called problem-focused coping.
If the stressor is something that is under your control (e.g., article to write, deadline to meet), when you encounter said stressor, you should do everything in your power to fix it (e.g., write the article, meet the deadline).
READING, WRITING, BUT NO ARITHMETIC
Everyone agrees that the least effective method of coping with stress is avoiding dealing with it by finding a diversion or by denying it even exists. An interim coping mechanism Pritchard recommends—which she refers to as an example of “emotion-focused coping”—is writing. This is something I’ve been doing for years with good success. Set a timer (5-10 minutes), get out a sheet of paper, and flow-write until the timer goes off. Keep your pen on the paper and let it all out. This can relieve some of the stress, and it might even result in some insight into the situation.
Pritchard also advocates reading as a coping mechanism.
For me, reading serves as proactive coping—upfront efforts to ward off stress. Reading time is me time, and depending on what I’m reading, it may relax me, make me laugh, or exercise my brain. The point is that it offers a little mental break—a mini siesta, if you will—and after I finish the chapter, I return to work, to life, more refreshed and able to cope with all of the little things that seem to pile up day after day.
Reading, especially reading fiction, lets us travel briefly to another world, a different time and place. I love the idea of using it as a means of coping with stress proactively. I’m going to start keeping a novel at the side of my desk and dip into it periodically during the day, rather than wait until I “have” time to read. Perhaps reading, like meditation, increases our resistance to stress over time.
So these seem to be the keys:
- Build proactive coping mechanisms into your day.
- Write when you’re too stressed out to think straight.
- And if you’re stressing over something you can do something about, then by all means deal with it.