Experiencing stress is a common occurrence for human beings, and is often unavoidable. In fact, living stress-free is actually impossible when you think about it. First, unexpected events happen to us all the time that trigger stress responses, meaning that even when things are going really well we know that eventually we will experience a challenging — and stressful — life event. A second important fact about stress is that we not only experience stress when bad things occur to us, but also when we experience good events in life. This means that even a job promotion (typically viewed as a positive event) can be stressful when learning of the new responsibilities that accompany the new job title.
Breaking down stress
“Stress” is difficult to define because it isn’t something directly observable, and stress impacts people in unique ways. The old saying “one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure” is a simple way to begin the conversation around stress, as it is our individual perceptions of life events and situations that dictates the magnitude of stress we experience. For example, if we interpret a life event like making new friends as something fun and easy, then we will likely experience positive emotions with little, if any, stress. Conversely, if making new friends causes you worry that people won’t like you (your perception), then you will almost certainly experience emotional, behavioral, and cognitive stress. In this example, you might feel anxious, experience a rapid heart rate, and think irrationally — all signs that you are experiencing stress.
The rings of stress
One way of examining the stressors in your life is to break down your interactions and experiences:
- Individual-level. These would include your daily, intimate interactions — your family, close friends, and environments in which you travel.
- Work-level. We spend much of our life working, so it makes sense to examine your work duties and job satisfaction. When we dislike our jobs, we leave ourselves open to coping with stress in poor, ineffective, and potentially dangerous ways.
- Macro-level. What news and events do you experience on daily basis? Social media trends? Politics? Sports? Do these things add joy to your life, or compound stress?
- Random. This last category is a catch-all for other unique experiences that happen unexpectedly. Examples might include job downsizing, pregnancy, marriage, or divorce.
Control, predictability, and optimism
Beating stress relies on many factors, and requires ongoing awareness, preparation, and response. Psychology research studies have revealed important common traits and characteristics that help us successfully handle stress, including the following:
- Control. An important, initial distinction when experiencing stress is to determine your level of control. While it isn’t an absolute formula for success, people generally do much better when acting on stressful situations and taking control of their thoughts and actions, compared to others who feel their actions will have no impact on solving their problems.
- Predictability. A second relatively easy, yet often overlooked, variable linked to beating stress is to predict likely future stressful events. For example, if you know several school/work assignments will be due in a week, it would make sense to plan your time and efforts ahead of time instead of waiting to prepare at the last moment.
- Optimism. Your attitude really matters when it comes to beating stress. Developing self-confidence, improving focus, and galvanizing resiliency are qualities all humans can develop and improve upon, and they serve especially well when experiencing tough life situations.
Life is difficult
When you take time to evaluate the various rings of stress we encounter on a daily basis, it’s easy to borrow from Scott Peck’s opening quote in The Road Less Traveled: Life is difficult. A squabble with a family member, traffic on the way to work, an angry boss waiting to pile on more work, and learning troubling national news can be stressful — and to think all of that can occur before having your first coffee for the day. While life can most definitely be difficult, a lot of stress can be mitigated by taking time to identify stressors, preparing for stress, and develop healthy and effective ways to cope.