How to Thrive Under Stress

The year 1975 holds a lofty place in the annals of stress research. That was when the Federal government decided to deregulate the telephone business, which at the time was a monopoly held by AT&T. Recognizing the opportunity to observe the effects of mass stress, Salvatore Maddi, a professor of psychology at UC Irvine, began a 12-year project to track the fate of 450 managers at a Chicago subsidiary. What he found upended basic ideas about human psychology and paved the way for a whole new perspective on stress.

When the breakup took place in 1981, half of the company’s employees were laid off. For two-thirds of them, the transition was traumatic. Many were unable to cope. They died of heart attacks and of strokes, engaged in violence, got divorced, and had mental health issues. But the other third didn’t fall apart. Their lives actually improved. Their health got better, their careers soared, and their relationships blossomed.

The finding was revolutionary. “The general idea at the time was that you should stay away from stress because it can kill you,” Maddi recalls. “But it turned out that some people thrive on it.”

What made these people different? Sifting through his data, Maddi discerned a trend.

Those who responded well to the crisis shared a characteristic he called hardiness. In essence, hardy people have the courage and the motivation to treat each crisis as an opportunity. Maddi traced this capacity to three basic attributes, which he calls the “Three C’s.”

The first “C,” commitment, refers to the tendency to see your task as important enough to merit the full scope of your attention and energy. Commitment means that even when your situation is deteriorating you stay plugged in to your goal. Instead of withdrawing, you connect to the people and events around you. Ultramarathoners understand this implicitly. A 100-mile race is a brutal undertaking that only the most committed athletes would even think of running; even so, half of those who start typically drop out due to injury or fatigue. To cross the finish line requires exceptional devotion to the effort. “I consider myself a very goal-oriented person,” says ultramarathoner Troy Espiritu. “I love putting a plan together and working towards it.”

The second “C,” control, is the feeling that, whatever happens, you’ll keep trying to have an influence on the outcome, rather than becoming passive and give up. Numerous experiments have shown that a sensation of being out of control is itself highly stressful. For instance, military psychologists in World War I found that soldiers who were forced to passively endure bombardment with no outlet for useful activity, such as attacking the enemy, were likely to crack under the pressure and become psychological casualties.

The third “C,” challenge, is an understanding that life doesn’t have to be free of worries to be pleasurable and fulfilling. Stress is natural and that it provides an opportunity to grow and develop. The key to mastering this mindset is to develop a sense of confidence in your abilities. You can do this by getting in the habit of pushing your personal envelope. “Set challenging but reachable goals that become progressively more challenging,” Maddi says.

“Intentionally expose yourself to things that you’re afraid of.” Then, he says, reward yourself for your success: “Give yourself credit when you do reach goals.”

After all, when it comes to surviving and thriving amid challenges, there’s no better ally than yourself. So when you make it through a rough patch and come shining through on the other side, you owe yourself some celebration. It will help keep you motivated the next time.

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