We can feel stress in response to any demand or perceived threat we face (such as losing a job). Chronic stress is often experienced in our day-to-day modern lives, with family, financial or work stressors. Technology has added many layers of stress, including keeping up to date with developments, the ever-present texts, alerts and emails (and the expectations about responding quickly).
WAYS TO DEAL WITH STRESS AND ANXIETY
1. Review lifestyle and have a check-up
- Focusing on a healthy lifestyle is always important in reducing stress and anxiety. In particular, limiting alcohol and caffeine, getting some regular exercise, eating healthily, improving sleep, managing stress, taking time out to relax, reducing substance use, enjoying activities and connecting with others can all help.
- Practising mindfulness regularly and disconnecting at times from phones, tablets or laptops can also assist. And don't forget about humour – having a good laugh can help relieve stress and anxiety.
- Have a check-up to make sure the symptoms of physical illnesses are not mimicking anxiety.
- Apart from helping sort out physical health issues, a doctor can also listen and offer support, discuss lifestyle and provide information. They can assist in developing a plan of management, including what to do in a crisis. They can also suggest an appropriate therapist.
2. Reduce your ‘stress bucket’ and learn to relax
- Sit or stand up straight. Place your right hand on your upper chest and your left on your abdomen. Taking medium-sized breaths, focus on breathing down into the belly. Feel the abdomen move in as you breathe out, and out as you breathe in. Aim to breathe in for three counts and out for three counts – counting in two, three, and out, two, three – and this will lead to about ten breaths a minute.
- Imagine a square shape and follow each side in your mind. Travel up the left-hand side as you breathe in slowly for four counts, across the top as you hold your breath for four counts, down the right-hand side as you breathe out for four counts, then hold for four across the bottom and back to the start for four counts. Keep repeating these steps.
- Find a piece of paper and a pen. Place your hand on the paper and slowly draw around your thumb, breathing in with the upstroke and out with the downstroke. Repeat with each finger.
3. Identify and work through related issues
- Define the problem in specific yet everyday terms. Spend time really thinking about this. For example:
"I feel stuck in my job and I want to make a change, but I am worried about not having enough money."
- Make a list of all the possible solutions. Brainstorm as many outcomes as possible, even some wild ones (these can always be discarded).
- Think about the pros and cons of each solution.
- Then choose the best possible solution!
In problem-solving, we also need to predict challenges that might arise and think about how to deal with them. We need a plan for carrying out the solution, which is broken down into small steps. Remember, even a partial success is a win and we may not resolve the problem with the very first solution.
4. Tap into therapies & avoid the traps
- Talking with someone who listens can help us sort through feelings of stress or anxiety. We feel supported and as we talk, the brain is processing what has happened and we are sorting out a way forward in our own mind.
- Cognitive behaviour therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours all influence each other. We can't change how we feel on the spot, but we can change our feelings by working with thoughts and actions. Examples of actions we can take to reduce anxiety include relaxation techniques. Doing enjoyable activities, such as reading a book or walking, can help us find calm too. Or allocate "worry time" each day, say 20 minutes, and work on not being hooked back into worry at any other time.
- We know that anxiety commonly leads to avoidance. Gradual exposure is a therapeutic strategy used to help overcome avoidance. The technique works on the idea that the brain might need to re-learn not to be fearful. Exposure involves facing the fear in a gentle way, with small steps.
- Notice and name the feeling (such as sad, anxious or angry).
- Notice the thoughts. What is the self-talk? (e.g. "I should be able to do this.")
- Learn about potential thinking traps (such as black-and-white thinking or crystal-balling) and work on identifying them.
- Challenge the thoughts (e.g. "What would I say to a friend if they were having that thought? Don't 'should' on myself!").
- Develop more helpful thoughts by reframing them (e.g. "Maybe I can do some practice and give it a go.").
This is about making a negative interpretation of things. For example, we might think that someone is thinking negatively about us when there is no evidence of this (called mind-reading); or we might jump to negative conclusions about the future (called crystal-balling).
This is overemphasising the importance of events, so that a small mistake might be perceived as a disaster.
Discounting any positive experiences and maintaining a negative outlook.
We speak to ourselves with "shoulds" and "musts". This is often related to setting high expectations, but the emotional result can be guilt or frustration.
Applying labels such as "I'm a failure".
With this thinking style there is no middle ground. For example, if one or two things don't work out for us, we think "everything" is going wrong.