Life doesn’t always go as planned-a flight is canceled due to weather, or your knee starts to throb halfway through your morning run. But it’s how you respond to these situations that can make all the difference. “The majority of the stress we experience occurs because of the way we talk to ourselves and others about normal life events,” explains Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., a psychology researcher at Stanford University and author of Stress Free for Good. When we rewrite this dialogue, our emotional reaction can change too, he explains. Adding the following words and phrases to your repertoire can help you maneuver gracefully through awkward situations and everyday anxiety traps.
1. "I don't know."
The topic at your friend’s cocktail party is a book you haven’t read. You don’t want to seem stupid or uninformed, so when another partygoer asks for your opinion, you scramble for an answer.
Next time you’re put on the spot, be honest and say, “I don't know.” Instead of standing silently (and worrying that you’ll be found out), you can slide your way into a conversation by asking others to fill you in on the topic (“I’m not familiar with that book. Can you tell me about it?”). Most people will be happy to oblige and may even feel flattered that you asked them to share their knowledge.
2. "Let me get back to you on that."
It’s easy to get flustered when you’re caught off-guard, and a rash response or snap judgment can come back to hurt you later, says Patricia Farrell, Ph.D., a psychologist and author in New Jersey. This phrase makes you sound more in control and buys you time to formulate the appropriate response.
3. "That's an interesting point."
Whether you’re arguing with a family member or debating politics with friends, disagreements can be a huge source of ongoing tension. Instead of thinking, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” acknowledge the other person’s point of view, suggests Farrell.
4. "I feel..."
Unexpressed emotions are such a source of tension that they can eventually have physical consequences. In addition to increasing the risk of heart attacks, they can also cause headaches, insomnia, forgetfulness, gastrointestinal distressand fatigue.
’Fess up to your feelings immediately. Tell the other person that you’re angry, sad or hurt, starting the statement with “I feel.” This enables you to have a calmer, more cooperative conversation, explains Pamela Peeke, M.D., author of Body for Life for Women.
5. "I'm sorry, but I can't."
When you have a packed calendar, taking on even the smallest commitment can send stress soaring. Knowing how to say “no” tactfully and firmly is key to deflecting this type of stress, says Peeke. An outright “no, thanks” may cause you to worry about upsetting the other person, while gentler phrasing (“I’m not sure this is the right time”) sounds wishy-washy and implies that you might be available under different conditions. Prefacing your refusal with a sincere “I’m sorry” softens your response without providing an opener for other qualifiers.
6. "I can do this."
If you’ve ever done something out of your comfort zone, you’re familiar with the price of self-defeating talk. Thinking “What if it goes horribly, horribly wrong?!” often makes it do just that. On the other hand, affirming statements-like “I can do this”-soothe your nerves by reinforcing the idea that you’re in control of the situation.
7. "This is beyond my control."
According to Peeke, we tend to initiate stress by ruminating over problems we’re powerless to change. Instead, actively distancing yourself from an uncontrollable situation will make it easier to go with the flow.
8. "I choose to..."
Thinking about pleasurable activities as though they’re chores (“I have to get my hair cut” or “I have to meet Jen for dinner”) can leave you feeling pressured. Switch one just word-have-to choose, and you’re no longer lumping the good stuff in your life into the category of “stuff I must endure.”
9. "I'll do my best."
When faced with a high-stakes situation-say, an interview for your dream job-it’s common to put undue pressure on yourself. Instead, tell yourself, “I’ll do my best.” This phrase helps you feel hopeful, says Luskin, and reminds you that perfection isn’t the goal.
10. "Will I worry about this in 6 months?"
Ask yourself what’s causing the most stress in your life right now. Now ask yourself if you’ll still be fretting over this “crisis” half a year from now. This helps put situations into perspective.
11. Say absolutely nothing.
If you’re besieged by a complainer or catty Cathy, it’s often best not to chime in. The tense, negative energy wastes time and causes more stress. Smile and don’t say a word.