Gemma shares seven simple steps to help manage stress.
Do you dread public speaking, break out in a sweat when flying or panic if someone hasn’t replied to your text?
We’ve all been there before. The racing heart, shallow breaths and physical tension radiating through your body. While it’s never nice, the reality is that anxiety is a very normal emotional response and everyone will feel it at some point in their lives. It can involve major worry over past or future events (particularly understandable given the uncertainty of today’s world), be sparked by the ordinary day-to-day pressures of work, family and finances, or be caused by other more-difficult-to-pinpoint reasons.
Our brain’s built-in alarm system is designed to keep us safe. Deep within it are neural circuits monitoring the body and environment for signs of trouble. When danger is perceived, our alarm sounds and adrenaline is pumped into the system. This kicks off powerful biological responses including an increased heart rate, shallow breathing and sweating. It can feel scary, but this is our body’s way of keeping us safe.
It’s important to remember that we cannot regulate something we’re not aware of, so becoming conscious of our own internal state is key. Emotions are neither good or bad, they simply provide us with useful data. They’re like little messengers alerting us to perceived threats or danger. Try to view them as a wave. Allow your emotions to come and go, without resisting or fighting them. Notice how you’re feeling, accept the emotion, then send it on its way. As my mum always says to me in a difficult or worrying time, “It too shall pass.”
Here are some simple ways to cope.
1. Be aware of negative thoughts
Noticing your anxious feelings is the first step to alleviating them. Be aware of negative thoughts and try not to give them too much power. Thoughts are thoughts, they are not facts. Sometimes our interpretations matter, so changing the lens with which we look at something can help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, engage in a calming activity to reduce the intensity of the emotion. This might be a walk around the block, listening to music or simply phoning a friend.
When we become anxious, we tend to take very shallow breaths. By becoming aware of our breathing, we can learn to bring about calm. Deep breathing will help you avoid the fight or flight (acute stress) response. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your belly. Allow your belly to relax, without forcing it inward by squeezing or clenching your muscles. Breathe in slowly through your nose. The air should move into your nose and downward so you feel your stomach rise with your other hand and fall inward. Exhale slowly through slightly pursed lips. Take note of the hand on your chest, which should remain relatively still.
A handy little acronym which I use frequently is HALT. This stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. By running through this checklist when you feel those anxious feelings, it gives you permission to pause, reflect and become aware of physical conditions that might be contributing to your stress. Understand that hunger, anger, loneliness and tiredness can all exacerbate anxiety. If you are any of those things, take steps to fix them. Make a snack, have a nap, phone a friend or take deep breaths.
4. Consider journaling
A simple exercise that often helps is writing down your feelings. Consider the evidence for and against your thoughts. Make a list of things you can control and can’t control, then plan some active steps to address them. Avoid obsessively searching the internet or scrolling social media, as sometimes this can only increase your worries. The power of focusing on what you can control is knowing you have the ability to put energy into something you can change and learning to choose one thought over another.
5. Reach out
I know it’s often the last thing you want to do when you’re not feeling your best, but sometimes reaching out is the best way to help yourself feel better. Connecting with others and talking through how you’re feeling can be hugely beneficial. If you’re persistently overwhelmed and anxious, call Healthline and make an appointment with a health professional to develop the necessary tools to help manage anxiety.
It may seem counterintuitive to put physical pressure on your body, but exercising can relieve mental stress. The benefit of exercising regularly is that those who do it feel less anxious. Activities that require repetitive movements or engage large muscle groups, such as walking or jogging, can be particularly stress relieving. If you need something to calm your body and brain, try yoga or a meditation practice that involves sitting or standing.
Do not underestimate the critical role sleep has on reducing anxiety. Prioritise consistent sleep patterns, and where possible, take power naps (20-30 minutes) if you need to. I know it can be hard to fall asleep when you’re worried, but prevention is powerful, and routinely getting eight hours’ sleep is crucial for good mental health.