Guide to Managing Stress and Anxiety

Guide to Managing Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are natural parts of life and, in small doses, can be motivating. However, prolonged periods of stress and anxiety lead to a host of health issues, including high blood pressure, panic attacks, and depression.

You may be so used to high levels of stress that you don’t even notice it. Look for indicators in your behavior, body, and mood. Behavioral indicators include angry outbursts, overeating, under-eating, and social withdrawal. Body indicators include fatigue, changes in sex drive, upset stomach, and headaches. Changes in mood include feeling overwhelmed, feelings of sadness or irritability, and a lack of motivation.

There are many ways to alleviate stress, including activities that bring immediate relief, and incorporating lifestyle habits that reduce stress long-term. No one method works for everyone; the secret is to try numerous coping strategies to discover which ones work best for you, and incorporate those into your daily life.

Tricks to Relieve Stress Immediately

Some days are more stressful than others. Maybe you got a new assignment at work, have a tight schedule running kids to activities, or have a house full of visitors during the holidays. While reducing on-going stress through lifestyle changes is important, you also need ways to experience immediate relief.

Exercise is one of the greatest stress relievers, and you don’t even need an extended workout session to benefit. Regular exercise produces long-term effects on both physical and mental health, and you also get immediate stress relief through the release of endorphins and increased energy. If stress is getting to you, take a 10-minute walk around the block, find a private room and an upbeat song for a quick dance, or walk up and down a couple flights of stairs.

Deep breathing exercises also work to calm you during moments of stress, as they naturally reduce heart rate and increase oxygen intake. At birth, our breathing habits more closely match the optimum, but by the time we become adults, our breathing becomes more shallow and rapid. This type of breathing initiates the fight or flight instinct, and our body responds by producing high levels of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol, among others. Try a variety of breathing exercises the next time you feel stressed, including diaphragmatic breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and bellows breath. These techniques increase energy and reduce stress.

Another technique is to tighten and relax your muscles, starting with large muscle groups and methodically working your way through your body.  Or, if you would be more comfortable, sit in a chair, eyes closed, and work your way up your body, beginning the exercise with your toes and focusing on each body part in turn.

Lifestyle Changes to Manage Stress

Taking care of yourself is not selfish. If you don’t see to your own needs, how can you possibly take care of anybody else? Unfortunately, for many people, self-care takes a backseat to everything. These people concentrate on caring for their spouse, children, parents, and friends, or focus on work, and at the end of the day, there is no energy left for them.

Implementing healthy lifestyle changes works wonders to manage stress. A nice side effect is that a healthier you is better equipped to care for loved ones and do a good job at work. However, do not overwhelm yourself trying to implement all of these changes at once. This would have the unintended effect of increasing your stress.

Start by implementing a regular exercise program, and gradually increasing your physical activity. You can start out slowly, fitting in 10 minutes of activity wherever you can and build your endurance. The goal is aerobic activity, with a mixture of moderate and more intense exercise. Dancing, walking, jogging, swimming, biking, and yoga all qualify as acceptable exercise to fight stress and improve overall health. You should talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program. Add healthy eating habits. You can do this slowly, by adding one serving of fruit or vegetables to your daily diet. When this becomes habit, pick one unhealthy food to cut from your daily diet, such as soda or fried foods. Your doctor is a great source for healthy diet suggestions.

For both diet and exercise, choose something that you enjoy and that will be easy to maintain. For example, if you can’t imagine a life without bread, don’t decide to adopt the paleo lifestyle. If you hate organized sports, don’t join the office softball team.

Carve time out of each day to relax or have fun – or both! A 20-minute relaxation session after you get home from work helps you put aside the stresses of the day and switch from work mode to family mode. If you can’t manage 20 minutes after work, choose a window during your day that works with your schedule, and stick to it! This is your time, so do not allow interruptions. Journal, meditate, read, take a hot bath – whatever works to help you relax.

Schedule time for things you enjoy doing such as hobbies like painting, knitting or crocheting, playing an instrument, writing or reading, or playing a sport. Whatever brings you pleasure should be part of your regular routine.

Finally, find time to laugh. Watch a stand-up comedian or your favorite comedy show, socialize with family and friends. Embrace the things that bring you joy and laughter, and make time for them.

Lower Anxiety by Managing Your Worries

Note that the title of this section advises “managing your worries”, not eliminating them. People worry. It only becomes an issue when worrying becomes an obsessive behavior. For some people, though, this is their normal frame of mind. They worry about their kids, they worry about their spouse, they worry about job security, paying bills, terrorism, crime, weather… the list of worries seems endless.

The reality is that most worrying is a fruitless waste of energy. What’s more, it serves as an avoidance technique, meaning that time spent worrying is time not spent addressing the underlying problem. If you find yourself worrying about something, ask yourself, “Is there a solution to this problem?” Is it a current problem, or something you only imagine may become a problem? How likely is it that this thing will happen? Do you have any control over this problem?

Productive worries are those you can actually address and begin solving today. In this case, instead of obsessing over the worry, start brainstorming solutions. Don’t worry about finding the perfect solution, just make a list of all the things you could do to solve the problem. With a list like this, you can then create an action plan. This takes you from feeling helpless and out of control to taking back the power you feel when you’re actually doing something to solve a problem.

If worrying is a habit for you, consider setting aside time to worry every day. As you likely already know, telling yourself not to worry doesn’t work. Instead, keep a worrying To Do List. When anxious thoughts strike, jot them down. Then, tell yourself you’ll focus on this later. This accomplishes two things. One, it helps break the habit of constantly worrying. Two, it proves you have more control over your thoughts than you thought.

Finally, challenge your anxieties by questioning them. Is there any evidence backing up the worry? What’s the probability this will happen? Is there a more positive outlook? If your best friend or child came to you with the same worry, what would you say?

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms: What to Avoid

People develop a variety of unhealthy habits to avoid stress, negative feelings, and emotions that cause worry and anxiety. You may feel instant relief with these tactics, but in the long run, they do nothing to solve your problem and typically make things worse.

Using drugs or alcohol can develop into an unhealthy way to cope with stress, or to relax. Not only does this create a potential health problem (and in some instances a legal one), it only serves to distract you from your worries while doing nothing to solve them. Smoking is also a common coping strategy with no long-term benefits and numerous health implications.

People also frequently engage in “binge” behaviors, such as overeating (especially comfort foods), or spending hours in couch potato mode, mindlessly watching television or surfing the web.

To avoid stressful thoughts, you may pack your day so full of activities that you don’t have time to think, thereby avoiding your problems. People may also choose to withdraw from friends and family, avoiding all social interactions. Some take out their stressful feelings on those around them, through angry or violent outbursts.

You may recognize many of these behaviors from the “symptoms/indicators” list mentioned in the second paragraph of this guide. These unhealthy behaviors tend to complicate stress and make outcomes worse.

When to Find Professional Help

How can you know if it is time to find a mental health professional to talk to?  If you are having thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself or someone else, call 9-1-1 immediately or go to the nearest hospital emergency room and tell them you are having these thoughts.  This situation is serious and you need attention and help right now!

For other concerns, a good rule of thumb is that if your symptoms have been consistent for longer than two weeks and the lifestyle changes you are trying have not helped, it is good to make an appointment with a counselor.  If your symptoms are intense and disrupting your life in general, including impacting your ability to function at school or perform your job responsibilities, make an appointment to speak with a counselor.  If you are withdrawing from your relationships with family and friends, or you no longer participate in activities that you have always enjoyed, or if you are sleeping too much or too little, contact a mental health professional.  If you are using alcohol or drugs to cope, or you are having sad or hopeless feelings, call and make an appointment to see a mental health provider right away. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you will be coping more effectively and feeling better.

There are many ways to find a professional to help you.  You can ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health provider, your employer may offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), you can check with your insurance provider.  Additional options are to contact a local mental health clinic, or your clergy may be of support and have a referral for you.  You can also ask trusted friends if they know of a counselor you can contact.  Note:  mental health professionals include, among others: counselors, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists and pastoral counselors.

The Takeaways on Managing Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are common to the human experience. However, they do not have to be constant companions in your daily life. Conscious behavioral changes help alleviate stress and anxiety. Dumping unhealthy habits and replacing them with healthier choices leads to greater physical and mental health, and a more enjoyable life.

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