Some folks deal with each new stressful thing as it comes, rather than letting them pile up and get totally overwhelming. But those of us who react more strongly to stress tend to forget that our anxiety comes in waves — and creates a vicious stress cycle if we don’t continually address it (something non-stressers are often experts at). “Worry will drag you down, but it engages your attention. So it’s very hard to let go of,” says Melanie Greenberg, PhD, author of the just-released book, The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity.
We talked to Dr. Greenberg about why some of us seem to pretty much always find ourselves caught up in this worry cycle while others are completely immune. And, if you’re one of the worriers, don’t stress (heh) — there are ways to get better at dealing with those anxieties before they really become something to worry about.
What determines the level of your response to stress?
“Your biology definitely plays a role. Some people are just more anxiety-sensitive or threat-sensitive. There’s some scale to that, low-anxious to high-anxious. Then there’s a group called ‘repressors.’ If you give them a questionnaire, they say they’re low-anxious, but if you give them a measure of defensiveness, they actually measure quite high [suggesting they are just repressing their anxiety].
“What you learn in childhood is another factor. If you have a dysfunctional family or childhood trauma, it can change the wiring of your brain and make you less able to deal with stress. It’s almost like it feeds whatever stress you’re facing [currently] if you haven’t gone to therapy or learned to cope with that.
“Then what you see other people do and how society expects [you to deal with stress] also matters. If you’ve dealt successfully with stress in the past or you feel a sense of mastery over it, you may feel excited or invigorated by [new stress]. There are also the expectations in your culture — some cultures tend to be more stoic, but others are more expressive.”
What’s different about people who just don’t get stressed out?
“I think there are two subgroups: One is actually not doing better and just avoiding the stress. They may actually be coping in unhealthy ways, such as drinking too much or spending too much money — they’re distracting themselves but not actually dealing with the problem.
“But then there’s another group that’s just stress-tolerant. There’s a bunch of things [that are different about them], such as having a sense of efficacy or mastery, like I can do this even though it’s hard. There’s also having support, other people who believe in you, having life experience, or leadership qualities — they’re just used to stepping out of the norm and feel more confident doing that.
“Some people have especially good coping strategies. For instance, a lot of CEOs run or meditate. They have a regular, effective stress management routine [not something they only turn to when stressed]. You establish it and then it helps when there’s a new stressor, but to begin a new routine when you’re already stressed is hard.”
What can the rest of us do to be become more resilient to stress?
“Research shows that the way you perceive your stressors and your ability to cope with them is just as important as the [stressful] events themselves.”
“The big thing is to try to find a sense of mastery, control, or a positive attitude toward the stress. Like, What can I learn from this? How can I grow from this? See if it’s an opportunity for growth or that it might give you something rather than having a fixed mindset that it’s bad or a threat or going to take things away from you.
“Another thing is having that confidence in yourself by thinking about difficult things in the past and how you’ve gotten through them. That will help you see yourself as a resilient person. Also, try thinking about which parts of the stressor you can and can’t control. Focus your energy deliberately on parts you can control and find peace with the parts you can’t.
“Also being more self-compassionate, not beating up on yourself so much, and having a more unconditional acceptance of yourself rather than conditional — that you have to be perfect, or you have to be brilliant at everything. So [that means] letting go of perfectionism and challenging your self-criticism. Then [you can try] mindfulness, trying to get some distance Is it really the end of the world if you can’t manage this?”
This article first appeared on http://www.refinery29.com