Stress is a leading cause of health problems, but what if you could avoid or mitigate these negative outcomes by outsmarting stress? New research at North Carolina State University suggests it’s possible, or at least for younger adults (ages 18-36) who learned “goal-oriented” skills for managing stress.
What Is Proactive Coping?
“Proactive coping” is a term that psychologists sometimes use for this approach to stress management. It consists of teachable behaviors or skills that can help individuals avoid future stressors or prepare themselves for how to manage future stressors.
Proactive Coping to Reduce Stress and Negative Health Effects
What the two new studies found was that regular practice of proactive coping was associated with little to no drop-off in physical health. (With many stress-related medical issues, there is also a mental health link; the mind-gut connection is one example.)
In addition to studying how proactive coping might help adults ages 18-36, the researchers explored the potential benefits for older adults, ages 60 and up. Strikingly, and in direct contrast to the younger adult group, the older study participants did not experience any discernible benefits.
3 Examples of Proactive Coping Skills
Examples of proactive coping skills abound. Many of them are already familiar techniques for reducing stress like cardiovascular exercise and mindfulness, which can be highly effective at building resilience. Here are three proactive coping skills that are worth knowing about precisely because they may be less familiar.
Visualization of Dreams and Goal Setting – The idea of “pursuing your dreams” can sound naively idealistic or unrealistically ambitious. Thankfully, this exercise is more practical and less demanding than that. The main idea is to spend some time envisioning your future self and what they need to feel happy and fulfilled. The next question can be, “What do I need to get there?” That can spark some brainstorming of smaller, more achievable goals and how to pursue these goals even on stressful days.
Mental Rehearsal – This skill puts visualization to work in a different way—to mitigate anxiety in a stressful situation. Whether it is an interview, wedding, or other potentially stressful situation, sometimes anticipating what moments or interactions will be most challenging can help a person plan and practice a response. Once they’ve identified the biggest stressors and prepared for them, they can navigate the situation with greater ease and sometimes even enjoyment.
Saving for a Rainy Day – Saving money, as a concrete example of how to prepare for future stress, is another proactive coping skill. Financial stress is very common. It also can be devastating to physical and mental health—a reality that has played out in many families both during the pandemic and after. Setting aside funds for a rainy day can help reduce the stress and stress-related health effects of a financial crisis due to illness or job loss.
Woody Allen once said that “90 percent of success is just showing up.” These and other cognitive and behavioral skills may help you show up less stressed and healthier, having done much of the work ahead of time.