How to Raise Your Stress Tolerance

Three tips to help you become stronger in the face of stress.

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By Nadia Goodman

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Running a startup or small business is riddled with stresses that demand your attention and drain your energy. You can't eliminate stress completely, so instead aim to boost your ability to cope with stress, which will help you face bigger challenges with confidence.

Each person has an optimal level of stress that they actually enjoy. It makes work exciting and engaging. But when we pass that level, stress becomes detrimental, leading to physical pains and poor decisions.

The amount of stress you can handle without getting overwhelmed is what psychologists call your stress tolerance. "It's the ability to cope with stress or adversity and bounce back," says David Ballard, psychologist and head of the American Psychological Association's Center for Organizational Excellence. The higher your stress tolerance is, the easier it will be for you to find your daily stresses invigorating.

Ballard recommends these three strategies to help you raise your stress tolerance:

1. Find opportunity in the challenge.
Stress makes us single-minded, so negatives loom large and positives fly under the radar. "Stress is designed to focus our attention or energy so we can overcome the threat," Ballard says.

That intensity works for time-sensitive, high-stakes issues, but most stressors are less immediate. In those cases, focusing on the problem exclusively is overwhelming and unproductive. Instead, look for new opportunities that this stressor creates, such as ways to make your company more efficient or improve communication.

Finding the silver lining helps you maintain hope. "People who have trouble bouncing back often see that challenge as completely insurmountable," Ballard says. An optimistic attitude will help you tolerate a lot more stress with ease.

Related: How to Manage the Stress of Uncertainty

2. Look at the bigger picture.
When you face one stressor after another, the constant demands can drown out the greater purpose. Remembering why you care about your work creates a buffer that prevents the stress from overwhelming you. "It's important to step back and think about what it is you're trying to accomplish," Ballard says.

Ask, what function or purpose does this particular stressor serve? How will resolving it help me accomplish my goal? By putting the stress in context, you restore your will to persevere, and you make better choices about how much time and energy to dedicate to the problem. It may deserve less attention than you're giving it right now.

3. Build in recovery time.
Our bodies evolved to tolerate stress in short bursts; to put all our energy toward a threat, then relax again when it's gone. Breaks between stressors allow us to recover, but few people take them today. "Many workplaces function in a state of chronic stress," Ballard says, leaving us depleted and short-fused.

Stress-induced smoking, drinking, overeating, or Internet surfing only compound the problem. Those activities feel stress-relieving, but they don't reset your system. To unwind effectively, try active hobbies such as sports or volunteer work, tech-free relaxation like meditation, yoga, or reading, and sleep at least six hours a night. The more you choose those activities, the better you'll cope with stress.

Related: 5 Ways to Stop Stress Before It Starts

Nadia Goodman

Nadia Goodman is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY. She is a former editor at YouBeauty.com, where she wrote about the psychology of health and beauty. She earned a B.A. in English from Northwestern University and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University. Visit her website, nadiagoodman.com.

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