Written By: Virginia Miller,LPC
Stress is an inevitable part of life. No matter how hard we try, it is often lurking around every corner. In order to manage stress, anxiety, and life’s demands, we must learn healthy strategies to cope.
Millions of people worldwide struggle with all of the complicated feelings that come with worry. Stress and anxiety can manifest itself in a variety of ways, but it is caused because our brains are conditioned to continuously scan for potential threat.
Because of this, it is useful to look at anxiety as an “inside job” that needs to be managed, rather than focusing too much on any one event or circumstance. We have all had the experience where we think that when our relationship resolves, or we finish our presentation, all of our anxiety will go away. That literally never happens to someone with anxiety because anxiety automatically shifts to the next thing. This is why if we understand that the mechanism of anxiety by nature is continuously scanning, it is unreasonable to think that it will just stop sending us messages one day.
The reality is that anxiety can feel incredibly annoying, uncomfortable, and even frightening, but it cannot actually hurt us. Many people are actually frightened by the sensation of anxiety in and of itself! So then we are dealing with the stress of a situation on top of being upset that we are upset. This can escalate quickly into panic, self-harming, shut down, or any variety of unhealthy coping strategies.
Here are some concepts to consider when creating a plan to effectively manage your anxiety and stress. Sometimes we need to increase our ability to cope, and other times, we need to be able to distance ourselves from the intensity of the feeling.
Decrease the Intensity of the Stressor
What can be avoided? What tasks or demands can we delegate or schedule for another time? Is it a necessity to get EVERYTHING completed today? Sometimes it is essential to simply do what we must, and make a plan for another day.
It is essential to learn to say “no” and prioritize. How can we distract ourselves (in a healthy way.) Exercise? Time with friends? Maybe something personal that you enjoy. The bottom line is we must know when we have simply done enough and it is time to shift gears.
What situations or people cause undue stress? If we are able to anticipate some of these situations, we can learn to work around it and not get caught off guard.
Be proactive in setting limits. Have a difficult conversation with a colleague for the sake of clarity and moving forward. Allow yourself to keep momentum. Stress spikes when demands increase and movement decreases. Your brain wants you moving and creating a plan, even if it is uncomfortable.
Increase Ability to Cope
Sometimes the best we can do it tolerate and accept situations we are unable to change. We are all thinkers and planners, and it is really frustrating when things do not go as planned. How can we build in some flexibility so that we do not get overly alarmed when situations arise?
We must be mindful of how we talk to ourselves so we do not end up going down the “rabbit hole” of unhelpful thought. Try to avoid getting in the bad habit of being your own worse critic. This is certainly not motivating. Striving for improvement and growth is one thing, but being mean to yourself because you are not already “there” is going the wrong direction altogether!
Are we truly in a situation that is unsafe or are we just really uncomfortable? One requires action, the other requires tolerance.
Who are your healthy supports? Know who you can reach out to when you are stressed who will have a comforting and grounding effect on you. The act of talking through worry is often enough to de-escalate the intensity. We certainly want to avoid letting stress bottle up over time.
What are your expectations? Are they reasonable? Are they rooted in trying to be perfect? Much stress comes from the personal expectation that we should NOT struggle, feel overwhelmed, and we should have finished our tasks yesterday. This is impossible, and it sets us up for a sense of failure before we even begin.
Always check your thoughts and ask yourself what is an expectation and what is the reality of a situation.
There is no need to be mad at stress…just learn to keep it in check and remember that when things are important to us, it is natural to feel some stress because we want the best outcome possible. Remember that it is not inherently a bad thing. Sometimes stress is exactly what is needed to keep moving, accomplish tasks and work hard. But just like anything else, too much can be a recipe for disaster. If we are not willing to feel ANY anxiety or stress, we will be very easily triggered, and will fall victim to really intense emotions that can be overwhelming and downright harmful. Accept that it is your job not to eliminate stress, but to learn to navigate it and keep it in a manageable(and tolerable) range.
Always remember, it’s OK to have your thoughts, but don’t let your thoughts have you.