I recently posted a blog on stopping fear before it starts. For many people, though, this is much easier said than done. And as I pointed out, after 20, 30, 40, or 50-plus years of conditioning your own fear response, it can take some time to undo.
What should you do in the meantime? I have a few suggestions. In this week's blog, we'll discuss the first: proactive coping. Proactive coping is an upfront effort to ward off your fears and potential stressors. So in other words, instead of stopping fear in its tracks, you are stopping it before it even starts. Sounds good, right?
So how do you do that? The first thing you need to figure out is how susceptible you are to the potential stressors in your life. Some of us seem to be stress magnets, whereas others seem to fly through their days without a care in the world (I really envy those people, too). What makes one person more susceptible to stress than others? There are a number of things involved, but it boils down to how healthy you are to begin with. Do you avoid tobacco? Get enough sleep? Eat healthily? The idea is this: The more worn down your body is from the daily grind, the less likely it is you'll be able to deal with potential stressors.
The fix, then, is relatively simple. Do more things on this list to increase your health. According to the research, here are the six things that are the most important:
I know, I know, anything with the word "complex" in it makes you think of psychobabble, and "complexity" makes you think people are just making things more complicated than they have to be. But bear with me. Self-complexity means that we each have a number of roles in our lives -- we are fathers, daughters, brothers, wives, mentors, employees, bosses, students, grandparents.... The list goes on. And it's a really good thing it does. To put it all in perspective, how much does that presentation you're giving at work really matter in the grand scheme of things? I'm not saying that you should blow it off -- by all means, give it your all -- but is it really more important than your daughter's fifth birthday party? To paraphrase theologian John Piper, no one lies on their deathbed saying, "I wish I'd worked more." The bottom line: Don't sweat the small stuff, because you are so much more than whatever it is you're afraid of.
The relaxation response is diametrically opposed to the fight-or-flight response. You can't be freaked out and relaxed at the same time -- it's not physiologically possible. The cool thing is that you can train yourself to relax in the face of potential stressors, reconditioning your stress response to be a relaxation response. Similarly, people who use relaxation techniques like meditation on a regular basis are less vulnerable to potential stressors. You know those days off work you get every week? Try actually taking them off! You might be amazed at what happens to your stress levels.
The ability to laugh at life can go a long way toward mitigating the stress response. In fact, the immune system improves after watching 60 minutes of a funny video; the effects last up to 12 hours! Maybe mom was right: Laughter really is the best medicine. Regardless, take advantage of those sitcoms, stand-up comedians, and anything else that makes you chuckle. Your body will thank you for it.
I talked last time about how going for a run when you're stressed can help because you're giving your body exactly what it thinks it needs (flight). As with the relaxation response, it turns out that regular exercise can help you better deal with potential stressors before they happen. Don't have time to exercise? You don't have to run a marathon. Try parking a little farther away from the grocery store entrance, taking the stairs at the office, or getting up 10 minutes earlier to do some yoga. A little goes a long way when it comes to stress prevention.
The importance of having an adequate social support network cannot be emphasized enough. It's not the quantity of relationships that matter, it's the quality. Having even one person you can count on in a time of need plays a critical role in buffering the harmful effects of stress on the body. It may also offer what is known as the "direct effect," helping you prevent the fight-or-flight response before it occurs. This is because your network of friends can help you solve problems before they even become problems, thus stopping the stress from occurring. So go ahead and vent. Your friends just might give you the solution you need to your latest issue.
Do you look at the glass as being half-full or half-empty? If you said "half-full," good for you! Like social support, having an optimistic life orientation can help dampen the effects of stress on your body. Optimists are also less likely to report feeling distressed than their more pessimistic counterparts. So smile more and think positively. No one likes a downer, anyway.
In sum, if you want to become fearless, you need to take care of your health first. Your body won't be able to ward off or cope with potential stressors well if you don't take care of yourself. So go talk to a friend, watch a funny movie, run a mile. Becoming fearless has never been so easy!
Stay tuned for the next installment: "Coping with stressors after they've occurred" or, "I just screwed up. Now what?"
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