The Best Way to Deal with Stress

How you react to stress affects your health

Stress mom and her child

Everyday stressors—a spat between the kids, a traffic jam, a work meeting that didn’t go as planned—can put a damper on your day. But before you get out of sorts, read this: research shows that how you respond to stress in the present affects your health in the future.

In 1995, Penn State researchers asked 435 people by phone on eight consecutive nights about the stress they encountered, their moods, and their physical symptoms. In 2005, they repeated the survey with the same people. After looking at the long-term survey results along with other health information they had gathered, the researchers concluded that the people who were most upset by daily stressors were more likely to have chronic health problems, especially pain and cardiovascular issues, later on.

Fortunately, we can control how we respond to stress. “Research shows that we can actually change our physiological response to stress and even change our brains structurally through regular practice of mindfulness,” says Patrizia Collard, PhD, a stress management consultant and author of Journey Into Mindfulness. “Ultimately, the more people reconnect to ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ may have an effect on our lives.”

The next time you feel overwhelmed by stress, try this mindful response:

Find stability. Stand or sit in a stable position. Feel your points of contact with the ground or chair, whether it’s your sit bones, big or little toes, or heels.

See strength. “Visualize an image of steadfastness and strength like a big oak tree or a mountain,” Collard says.

Just breathe. Connect to your breath by putting one hand on your chest and noticing the in and out flow of air. Focus on this for a few minutes. There is no need to change or control your breathing—simply be aware of it.

Tune in to your thoughts. Think of them like clouds in the sky, Collard suggests. Notice each passing thought and label it: worrying, planning, list-making. “Your thoughts are like passengers in your bus of life,” she says. They are present, but you don’t want them to “drive” the bus.

Let them go. After you’ve taken an objective look at your thoughts, Collard suggests returning your attention to your breath and then refocusing on your points of contact with the ground or chair.