I am very surprised, in one regard, despite having written about and talked to thousands of people about stress, that it seems to be getting worse instead of better. It seems like the pace of life is accelerating, and our minds aren't keeping up with the challenges in a healthy way.

The best way to deal with it is to prevent it in the first place.  I’m not talking about the necessary stress response when you’re facing true and imminent danger-if you didn’t have the fight or flight response you’d be in even more trouble.  The issue is how do we face life’s daily challenges, emotional bumps and bruises that makes us more susceptible to developing everything we don’t want-cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s, as well as many more?

I believe the most important long term approach to managing, and transforming stress, is changing our perspective.  You see, it’s how we see the situation that triggers our response.  While it may not seem so, because we’re not completely paying attention, the bottom line, is stress is always a perceptual choice.

And it has a whole lot more to do with how you perceive yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, your abilities, than it does the situation. The difficult boss, financial issues, challenging family situations to name a few, are major causes of stress for most of us.

It takes a while for most, but you can change the way you view these situations, and you can catch your stress response, when it begins and reformulate your thinking.

For example, one of my favorite studies that was conducted in the 1970s, Salvatore R. Maddi, a University of Chicago professor of psychology, read an article in a popular consumer magazine that warned, “Stress can kill you, so you need to stay away from it.” He wasn’t certain of this assertion, because he’d previously conducted research that determined that stress could sometimes have a positive effect by stimulating creativity in those who didn’t seek to avoid change. His research—different studies conducted in the last thirty years—has proven that stress can be beneficial when it’s treated as a challenge. People who handle stress well share key personality traits, which Dr. Maddi calls “hardiness attitudes and skills.”

Hardiness Protects Against Heart Attacks

From 1975 to 1987, Maddi conducted a landmark study of mid-level executives at Illinois Bell Telephone, a division of AT&T. In 1981, they faced losing their jobs as a result of the breakup of AT&T. Because it was an extremely stressful time for so many executives, the number of heart attacks skyrocketed, to the point that a coronary care unit was created at Illinois Bell’s corporate headquarters. Two-thirds of the managers fell apart from the stress of the company’s downsizing. They had heart attacks and strokes, suffered depression and anxiety, and got divorced. But within this group of executives, there were also those who thrived in the face of severe adversity.

Although the managers in the second group were similar in age and ethnicity to their counterparts, they held a different perspective. Among the managers experiencing high levels of stress, those who showed “hardy attitudes” experienced fewer mental and physical illness symptoms.Those attitudes entailed a commitment to the job, an amazing sense of challenge, excitement in response to adversity, and a critical perception of self-control. These managers didn’t just survive, they thrived! They also rose to the top at Illinois Bell or at competing companies.

The point is that no matter how bad things get, if you’re committed, you will stay involved and give your best effort rather than pulling back. If you are strong in the attitude of control, you will tend to perceive yourself as in charge of your destiny, and you will try to influence the outcome of events rather than lapse into passivity. You thereby have the greatest likelihood of influencing the outcomes occurring around you. Sinking into passivity and powerlessness seems pointless to those with hardiness traits.

If you believe that change is normal, you will be more able to treat change simply as a challenge. If you are strong in the attitude of challenge, you will think that your life will be most fulfilled if you continue to learn and grow in wisdom from your experiences, whether they are positive or negative.

Together, the attitudes of commitment, control, and challenge provide the foundation for turning stress from an emotional disaster into a growth opportunity. Dr. Maddi believed that the hardy attitudes of commitment, control, and challenge are the best description of human courage in action.

Hardiness Buffers the Stress-Disease Relationship

Several additional studies have demonstrated that hardiness moderates the stress-disease relationship. In combination with social support and physical exercise, hardy attitudes provide protection from stress-related illnesses, despite genetically inherited vulnerabilities to certain diseases. Research psychologist Paul Bartone was commissioned by the U.S. Army to study military personnel in various stressful circumstances, including peacekeeping and combat missions. He found considerable evidence that the less hardy the attitudes were, the greater the likelihood was that life-threatening stresses and the culture shock of military engagement abroad would lead to mental breakdowns such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

From all these studies, we can conclude that our behavior, guided by our personality traits, influences the way we live and how well we can adapt to life’s unpredictable trials and tribulations. Our perceptions, attitudes, and emotions are the keys to open either the doorway to health or the doorway to disease.


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