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.
In a March 2013 study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, 711 participants reported all the stressors they faced over the course of each day for eight days, including things like arguments, situations in which they could have argued but decided not to, looming deadlines, leaking roofs and talking to a friend about her cancer diagnosis. They also rated their moods, which researchers later correlated with the completed stress inventories.
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.
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.
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