It is possible to manage stress & anxiety. We have all felt overwhelmed by a seemingly unending to do list or found ourselves worrying about things in the future at times. Often we are able to work out ways to address these intense feelings on our own. There are times though when it is good to have someone help you to add a few tools to your emotional tool belt.
A balanced approach
When talking about stress it really becomes a matter of balance.
Think back to when you were a kid on school holidays. You may have found yourself whinging to your parents about feeling bored because it felt like there was nothing to do. Whether that is factually accurate or not the feeling represents under stimulation.
On the other end of the scale is when most of us talk about feeling stressed out and overwhelmed. This involves the sense that there is more to be done than is possible in the given amount of time.
In the middle is the sweet spot or what some call “the zone”. This is when you are sufficiently challenged to feel engaged but not so much so that it begins to have a negative impact on you.
The tricky part is these ranges are different for all of us. One person may feel like they are in the zone while the person next to them might feel completely crushed by that same workload. This subjectivity is where your personality, preferences and coping skills come into play.
What causes stress?
This is a question that has been researched for decades. In the early stress tests they focused on the number of major life events that you were experiencing. Think things like major illness, death of loved one, prison, job loss, divorce or relocation.
As more research accumulated they found that these were actually not the best predictors of someone’s stress level.
They began adding in a subjective rating of different events both large and small scale. Think about the person who hates their job but doesn’t have the courage to get another one but finds their dream job after being fired. Or the couple who fight all the time as partners but once divorced actually become friends.
These second generation tests took such events into account. As they continued their research they found that daily hassles and uplifts could be effective predictors of someone’s stress level on any given day.
This third generation of testing focused more on events like did someone let you in front of them at the market checkout line? Did someone cut you off in traffic? These aren’t life-changing events either way but for a few hours they may either be the cause of your singing & skipping or your growling and snapping at others.
Another interesting finding that comes from the stress research is that it comes from positive events as much as it does negative.
Think about receiving that promotion at work. Your initial response may be great. After you actually get settled into the role you start considering it requires more hours, travel, or doesn’t involve some of the things you really liked about your previous job.
Think about a schoolteacher who gets promoted to headmaster of the school. That may be great in terms of money, or leadership opportunities but not allow them to teach that literature class they had looked forward to teaching each year.
The same could be said about having a baby. Maybe it has been a goal for you and your partner for a few years. Though there may be major lifestyle (and sleep schedule) changes that are part of that package.
What about anxiety?
Well when considering anxiety we need to explore a bit about what it is and isn’t. In the common use of the term it may represent something very similar to feelings of stress e.g. extra tension, pressure, worry, difficulty sleeping etc. There would be a significant amount of overlap. However, if you get into more clinical levels of anxiety it may take on some different forms that would distinguish itself from it’s cousin stress.
In general anxiety & depression share some similarities e.g. difficulty with sleep, eating, irritability, worry etc. In fact some of the same pathways in our brains and chemicals in our systems regulate both.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
One of the common clinical forms of anxiety is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). This may cut across several life areas & impact your ability to function significantly.
Some common traits would include an intense sense of uncontrollable worry, muscle tension, irritability, and difficulty concentrating and sleeping.
Recent estimates show that about 1 in 6 Australians experienced some form of anxiety disorder in the last year. So it is likely you or one of your close friends or loved ones will experience anxiety issues.
There are several clinical categories of anxiety disorders. Things such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Social Anxiety and various Phobias are all officially in this category for example. Each of these would have specific treatment techniques matched to the distinct characteristics of these issues.
Recent findings have shown that PTSD & Social Phobia have become the most common Anxiety Disorders in Australia.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
You have likely heard of PTSD and how it impacts war veterans or those who have experienced violence. This sort of condition may require fairly extensive help so the individual can better cope with the impact of these traumatic events. I find that for PTSD it helps to be able to put what happened in perspective in the context of the story of their life as well as explore to what extent the intensity of these feelings can be moderated.
Social Anxiety is essentially really acute shyness. It would be marked by really powerful feelings of discomfort when in a group situation. This would be the advanced version of the butterflies we may all have when going into a new situation or an important meeting. For some it may involve racing heart rate, sweating trembling etc. when facing such a group situation.
For those dealing with Phobias life may become quite limiting. Imagine being afraid of flying for example but having family who live out of town. So any time there is a wedding, birthday or other special event you will have to make the choice of going and facing your fear of flying or not being apart of that event.
There are numerous phobias & the treatments really need to be tailor fit to the specific circumstances. However, there are similarities as well. On the surface the fear of heights may seem drastically different from the fear of snakes. Though it is common to use a version of Systematic Desensitization to address this sort of issue. What that involves is very slowly getting used to the thing you fear. You may at the end of treatment say you prefer to not be at great heights but that is different from feeling paralysed by the idea of even trying to be in that situation. The freedom to have options eliminates the feeling of being limited in life by your fears.
What can we do to better cope with stress and anxiety?
Well there are some specific things as mentioned above but there is also a lot of things that you could begin today that would certainly help you better cope. When thinking about these options lets take a triage approach like a medic might when faced with a medical problem. That is to say start with physical causes and supports, moving then to chemical and then on to emotional and social factors.
As mentioned in the stress section we are all hardwired with different tolerance levels that would be true with anxiety as well. Being aware of your own natural tendency to be stressed is a starting point. You can then factor in how well your body is equipped to cope. Are you getting adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise?
Let’s take nutrition because this borders the physical and chemical categories. Limiting caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol will be helpful. You may even want to take a closer look at your consumption of sugar and simple carbohydrates as these can impact your blood sugar levels. Blood sugar levels in turn can have effects on your mood. Sodium may be something else to monitor if you are feeling stressed. One of the effects of increased sodium would be the potential for increased blood pressure. This may feel like you are anxious causing you to mislabel this physical sensation as an emotional one or at least magnify the effect that a stressful situation may have.
It is also helpful to reflect on how you can use emotional and social changes to manage your moods. Make sure you maximize the things that you know help you sooth yourself. For some this may be meditation or quite reflection, for others it is a cup of herbal tea and their favourite novel. Consider making a playlist of songs that always put you in a calm content mood. This may also be a time when you want to lean on others in your support system. Companionship whether that is to watch a game on TV or go see a funny movie together may go a long way to lifting your spirits.