If there's a mental skill to develop over the course of a lifetime, it's knowing how to deal with stress. Many of us aren't naturally very good at it, so we tend to buckle under stress, instead of managing it. And since stress is a fairly certain part of life, it's helpful to be able to cope with it on multiple levels.
For those of us who are not so good at it naturally, here are some strategies that have been shown to help people cope with psychological stress. Making a point of doing as many of these as you can is a good idea. But like any habit, it will take some practice before they become reflexive.
1. Remember life isn't all about work
"Balance" is a hackneyed phrase, but there's definitely something to it. People who have blinders on for their work will probably do well professionally - but their lives may be pretty bleak socially or psychologically. And this can reduce your coping reserves.
"If you aim for harmony," says psychologist Deborah Serani, "your aim is to integrate - or fit - all that matters to you in meaningful ways. So it's not an either-or way of living, it's a 'let's get the pieces to fit' way of living."
So make time to enjoy life: Hobbies, entertainments, volunteering, and, of course, spend time with the people who you're working so hard for in the first place - your family. All of this is ultimately what makes life fun to live in the first place, with the added benefit of being a huge stress relief. So when stressors pop up, you're more able to deal with them.
2. Make time to be social, even when you don't want to be
Even if you don't feel like being social, get yourself out once a week: Being around people will help your stress level, since we're fundamentally social creatures and need those ties to keep us sane. Humans don't function well in isolation, and when stress hits, isolation is even more counterproductive.
"Just about the first thing to go when we are busy or under stress is spending time with good friends," says psychologist Heidi Reeder. "And yet even a quick hour with a friend, going for a walk or having lunch, can do a great deal for our mental and physical health. It's like a little vacation that you don't have to pack or plan for. Successful people know that time with friends is an important investment, particularly during times of stress."
3. Find a practice to focus your mind
Our minds can be our worst enemies when stress hits, or at any given time, for that matter. So a practice to rein in the "monkey mind" - like meditation or yoga - is smart. Companies like Google, Huffington Post, Target, Aetna, Apple, and Nike all encourage their employees to take time to meditate and/or offer classes. In fact, Google even has its "Jolly Good Fellow" position, filled until recently by Chade-Meng Tan, who taught employees mindfulness-based emotional intelligence, as well as serving as their general guru of well being.
These practices bring us out of the past and future, which we spend most of our time ruminating about, and into the present. Choose a simple meditation to start: Focus on your breath, and when your mind wanders, just note it, and return your focus to your breath, as many times as it takes.
4. Feed your senses
A good way both to de-stress and to stave off stress is to revel in your five senses (within reason, of course). Indulge your inner foodie, drink rich coffee, listen to music that moves you, watch the sunset, feel the grass under your feet, or wrestle with your kid in the snow.
It's another way of living in the present - but instead of focusing your mind on the present, you're focusing on amazing sensory experiences of being human.
"Successful and happy people feed their senses," says Serani, "and as such, they enable more relaxation and ease into their lives. This is sometimes called 'Subjective Well Being.' Happy people tend to appreciate the simple or positive moments from 'flow of life experiences.'"
5. Express gratitude
When things go downhill, finding the things that you are grateful for goes a long way in bringing you down to planet earth. Writing down things you're grateful for has been shown to be helpful for reducing stress and boosting well being. Even going over in your head, or with your spouse, the things you're grateful for can put things in perspective, and make stressors seem more manageable.
6. Remember that your worse case scenario may not come true
Finally, keep in mind that your mind creates some dizzyingly imaginative outcomes for problems. Most of these don't come true, of course, but our minds always feel obliged to work out the worst-case scenarios. So when you find yourself in these times, realize what you're doing - and remember all the times when you've created a catastrophe in your head where there really was none.