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You Should Think This One Thought When You're Stressed Out, Says Study

New research reveals the most effective mental exercise for beating back stress immediately.

It may seem like ancient history, but we were living in stressful times even before a viral pandemic swept across the planet. According to the 2019 vintage of the yearly "Stress in America" survey overseen by the American Psychological Association, some of the biggest stressors in the country at the time included rising healthcare costs, mass shootings, discrimination, climate change, immigration, and the forthcoming presidential election. On the personal front, some 60 percent of all adults reported feeling stressed about work and even more about money. Suffice it to say, 2020 hasn't improved matters.

According to a new report in The Washington Post, stress is affecting many of us so deeply and profoundly that we are unable to simply focus and complete the basic functions of our jobs and lives. "I have people coming to me for the first time, thinking maybe they have ADHD," Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Ed.D., LPC, a clinical psychologist based in Connecticut, explained. "Compounded stressors have really taken a toll on a nation that already was at an all-time high with stress."

If you're feeling acute stress or any of the side effects associated with stress—which, according to the Mayo Clinic, include headaches, restlessness, angry outbursts, social withdrawal, muscle tension, sadness and depression, poor sleep, and a lack of motivation or focus—you may be interested in the findings of a new study published in the journal Emotion, which offers at least one handy mental tactic you can try at home (or anywhere else, for that matter) that may help you better navigate your emotions. (More on that below.)

According to the study's authors, from the Department of Psychology and the University Hospital of Psychiatry at the University of Zurich, people react to stress differently, and it all largely boils down to varying degrees of resilience.

"While a large segment of the population turns out to be resilient in times of stress and potentially traumatic events, others are less robust and develop stress-related illnesses," they write. "Events that some people experience as draining seem to be a source of motivation and creativity for others."

In other words, the scientists say that those who cruise through stressful situations better are equipped with more "self-efficacy"—or the belief that "we have the ability to influence things to at least a small degree."

"Self-efficacious people have stronger problem-solving abilities and a higher level of persistence," they explain. "They also show changes in brain activation in regions linked to emotional regulation."

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It all begs the question: Are there things that the rest of us can do to inject ourselves with a little more self-efficacy when we're feeling stressed out, and as though life is too difficult to manage? The answer is yes, and it's done quite simply: You should take time to breathe, and then to recall a very specific moment in your life when you felt "particularly self-efficacious." Examples include moments when you may have had a successful conversation, passed a really hard test or exam, or the time you nailed the presentation. "In many cases," the authors note, "doing this exercise just once was already enough to achieve a positive effect."

What's important is that you choose a moment in which you displayed all of the characteristics of efficacy—you performed well and wielded your power of influence. You rose to the occasion—and succeeded. "Our study shows that recalling self-efficacious autobiographical events can be used as a tool both in everyday life and in clinical settings to boost personal resilience," conclude the authors.

What's interesting is that thinking of a moment of self-efficacy was far more helpful for the study participants at reducing stress and forgetting traumatic experiences than simply imagining a positive event, such as a beautiful day or being with people you love. "People who actively recalled their own self-efficacious behavior found it easier to reassess a negative situation and view it in a different light," the authors note. "They perceived the negative experience as less distressing than the subjects who were instructed to reflect on a positive memory unconnected to self-efficacy."

After all, in moments of stress, it's important to remind yourself that "you can get through this"—whatever it may be. And for more reasons you should get your stress under control, make sure you're aware of What Being Stressed Out Every Day Does to Your Body.

William Mayle
William Mayle is a UK-based writer who specializes in science, health, fitness, and other lifestyle topics. Read more about William
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