Life throws you curveballs all the time. Some are big—like divorce and downsizing—and some fall into the category of run-of-the-mill daily stress—spilling coffee on your laptop, say, or getting your driver’s license renewed. While it may seem that major traumas are clearly more meaningful in the long run than minor annoyances, research shows that it’s our reactions to these events, not the events themselves, that predict our future wellbeing. In fact, while you may barely remember the latte-laptop incident of 2003, how you dealt with it at the time might be an important factor in how you feel right now.
Ten years later, the people who’d reacted more emotionally to day-to-day stress were more likely to have anxiety or depression disorders than those who took their stress in stride. Compared to their mood-disordered cohorts, the people who ended up less depressed did not have less stress during the study period (most people averaged around two stressful events per week). The difference, the researchers found, was how well they dealt with the stress they did have.
Decreasing your reactivity to daily stress is one of the keys to long-term mental health, says Susan Charles, Ph.D., professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine and the lead author of the study. And of course, limiting your stress (to the extent you can) can’t hurt.
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Want to minimize your stress? Try this: Avoid stressful situations. It sounds obvious, but many times we ignore our natural aversions to certain circumstances or environments and put ourselves squarely in the middle of them. But we don’t always have to. If rush hour in L.A. makes you want to scream, don’t make dinner reservations after work; invite friends to your place and cook or order in instead. If you’re terrified of giving public speeches, politely decline an offer to speak at a work conference.
Charles suggests carefully examining what you find stressful. When such situations are on the horizon, plan for them in advance. “Be more proactive about knowing what’s going to bother you,” Charles says. If you move to a new area and have no one to make plans with on Friday night, don’t wait until it’s upon you and then frantically try to deal with the loneliness and distress it provokes. Prepare for it ahead of time. Cue up a movie, get a good book or set up a phone date with a friend back home.
Stress and anxiety often come about when we feel like we’re out of control or when the future is uncertain. An argument with a friend might be stressful because you aren’t sure how it’s going to end. Will you get what you’re fighting for? How will she react to you expressing your needs? A deadline will provoke anxiety if you’re not sure whether you’ll get the work done in time or not, or if it’ll be as good as you’d like. A 2012 study looked at people in leadership positions and found that they had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and fewer reports of anxiety than people on lower rungs of the corporate ladder. Greater power within an organization corresponded to less—not more—stress.
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Unfortunately, you can’t snap your fingers and become the boss, but you can try to assume more control over your circumstances. For instance, rather than just volunteering to help at your kid’s school fundraiser, offer to head the planning committee.
Relearn to React:
When you’ve done all you can to mitigate the stressors of circumstances you can’t escape, your last line of defense is your own reaction after the fact. A May 2013 study out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that reframing the way you think about situations in a more positive light enhances wellbeing in the long run. Psychologists call this cognitive reappraisal, and it “involves looking at things from a different perspective so you see the full half instead of the empty half of the glass,” says Florin Dolcos, Ph.D., who supervised the study. “In reanalyzing the situation, it might not look as bad as it did before.”
If your best friend decides to move to another city, for example, you might be flooded with negative feelings, such as anger, betrayal and loss. Suppressing these feelings will likely make you feel worse. Instead, you can work through them while trying to find the positives, like the career opportunities your friend will gain, and that you now have an excuse to go on vacation to visit her. Simply realizing that you engage in negative thinking might be enough to start you on the path toward less damaging reactions to stressful events, Dolcos says.
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You may not be ready to face your feelings right away, and that’s OK. In these cases, it’s often best to take a little time before you dive into self-reflection. “Find a way of switching the focus from the emotional circumstances to something else,” Dolcos advises. Distract yourself with activities and projects until you’ve cooled down a little bit and can process them without such a high level of distress. That doesn’t mean burying your feelings so you don’t ever have to deal with them (in which case they can come back later in other—often more destructive—guises. Rather, distraction just gives you the extra time you need to address the root of your anxiety without eating yourself up.
You don’t know what worry tomorrow may bring—but you can start preparing for it today.