We all know that life is stressful. In fact, without a certain amount of stress, life would be boring to most of us. We use certain internal stressors such as deadlines to make sure we stay on track with our responsibilities and appointments. Some stress comes from positive events in our lives such as a new marriage or birth of a baby. Other times, it is from a death in the family, financial worries, or too many demands at work. We live in a fast paced world that asks us to keep up a whirlwind speed that can become overwhelming at times. When we become overwhelmed by tasks, deadlines or commitments, we can move from stress to di-stress.
Stress and anxiety are the fight or flight instinct that is our body’s natural way of responding to emergencies. When there is an actual emergency, this instinct allows us to think clearly and quickly respond to what is needed. Hormones race through our body to speed up our heart and other physical processes. They help us to avoid or deal with the threat. However, because we have the ability to anticipate problems, many of us fall into chronic worry or planning for possible problems that never even materialize. Thoughts about these possibilities can trigger the same flood of hormones and stress. Chronic anxiety leads to impairment of the immune system and increases the risk of physical and mental problems. This can lead to increased physical problems such as autoimmune diseases, coronary artery disease and decreased satisfaction with life.
Signs of stress vary among individuals but may include:
- Worry, anxiety, or panic attacks
- Sadness or depression
- Feeling pressured and hurried
- Irritability and moodiness
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, or chest pain
- Allergic reactions, such as a skin rash or asthma
- Problems sleeping
- Drinking too much alcohol, smoking, or misusing drugs
- Sexual dysfunction
- Eating too much or not enough
Mindfulness is a great tool for coping with stress and anxiety. This practice involves stilling the mind by letting go of thoughts or emotions as they arise and tuning back into the present moment. Simply focusing on the breath or our body can do this. It is a practice of letting go of the thoughts that will, without a doubt, arise. The only definition of successful practice is that when we notice we are thinking or feeling, we name it and let it go, returning to the focus of the present moment. Practicing this type of stillness is best done as a routine before we are in the midst of an upsetting situation. Then when these situations occur, we can lean on our practice of letting go of anxious thoughts that are not helpful to solving the problem but just add stress. A great resource describing how to apply this technique specifically to anxiety is The Mindful Way through Anxiey: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life by Susan Orsillo, PhD & Lizabeth Roemer, PhD.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is also another tool that can help to alleviate the anxiety we feel. There are several different techniques in this field that can be applied to anxiety. The first step is learning how to identify these thoughts and differentiating the rational from the irrational. A therapist can help us to isolate the thoughts that are causing the anxiety and teach us ways to challenge them to decrease anxiety. This type of therapy has been shown to be a very effective means of reigning in our chronic worry, anger or depression. A good resource to read to become familiar with this tool is When Panic Attacks by David Burns, MD.
It is also important to remember to take time for self-care in the form of spending time with friends and family and getting the proper nutrition, exercise and sleep. Participating in positive activities and having fun is an important stress reducer. Watch any negative self-talk about not being able to cope or being competent. Seek out people that are supportive and caring. View problems as challenges rather than insurmountable obstacles. Remember, stress is normal but anxiety can be met head on and decreased. Don’t be afraid to seek the help of a friend or therapist if life begins to feel overwhelming and nothing seems to help. We all need help at one time or another and no one needs to go it alone.