Like monsters under the bed, stress and anxiety are stealing the peaceful nighttime rest of nearly 70 million Americans. Anxiety may also be sabotaging your confidence, turning your stomach into knots, and impacting your general well-being. You can begin to squash the uncomfortable consequences of stress and anxiety by trying out these tips:
1. Remember: This Too Shall Pass.
Laundry is piling up, the baby has a fever, and your boss wanted that report yesterday. Sound familiar? No one managing his or her own life is devoid of stress, and too much can lead to excessive worry, nervousness, dread, upset stomach, or difficulty breathing. The first step to overcoming such negative feelings is to recognize that you are experiencing a very common emotional state most commonly identified as anxiety. (Learn more about the signs of anxiety.) Although it's uncomfortable, those negative feelings will pass. Fighting the anxiety can just make it stronger; paradoxically, accepting that you are feeling anxious helps activate the body's natural relaxation response.
2. Learn How to Self-Soothe.
Imagine walking down a nature path only to be greeted by a snarling grizzly bear — or worse, your boss demanding that report. When we are faced with an anxiety-inducing situation, our body's sympathetic nervous system automatically triggers physiological changes. Our breathing quickens, adrenaline is secreted, and our heart begins to race. This natural survival mechanism — called the fight or flight response — is intended to help us to escape a true, life-threatening emergency. However, when the threat is imagined (e.g., I'm going to bomb this presentation and everyone will know I'm a fraud), the fight or flight response is unnecessary and very uncomfortable.
Self soothing techniques that reduce the stress response:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing. One of the most effective ways to activate the relaxation response is to decrease the heart rate. Since we can't voluntarily alter our pulse, more tangible measures are needed. A rapid heart rate can be lowered with deep breathing techniques. The most commonly utilized strategy is breathing by contracting the diaphragm, a horizontal muscle in the chest located just above the stomach cavity.
- Positive Self-talk. If a small child told you he was nervous about going to school the next day, what would you say? Unless you're abusive, you wouldn't say something like, "You should be nervous because no one likes you." This is because we intuitively know how to help others combat stress, often better than we ever help ourselves. To increase your own emotional comfort, it's imperative to practice reassuring and realistic self-talk. When anxious, practice phrases such as "This feeling will pass"; "I will get through this"; "I am safe right now"; "I am feeling anxious now, but I have the power make myself calm"; and "I can feel my heart rate slowing down."
- Muscle Relaxation. Stress causes our muscles to tighten and become tense. To increase a relaxed state and physical comfort, tighten and release muscles beginning with the largest muscle group.
3. Check Your Diet.
What we eat and drink impacts our emotional state. The foods most associated with exacerbating anxiety are those containing caffeine and alcohol. Even consumed in small amounts, studies have found that the stimulating effects of caffeine can cause anxiety, trigger panic attacks, and increase feelings of nervousness and irritability. Caffeine also causes physical symptoms such as trembling and shaking. Abruptly eliminating caffeine from the diet, however, can lead to withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, restlessness, and irritability, so it's important to decrease consumption gradually. Similarly, even though alcohol is often consumed to "take the edge off," it dehydrates the body and ultimately increases anxiety.
An imbalance of bacteria in the gut can also cause many symptoms associated with anxiety and other mood disorders. Researchers at McMaster University found evidence that the balance of bacteria in your gut may have more to do with your mood than any other contributing factor.
4. Get Moving.
Most of us know that exercise is good for our physical health. For the past few decades, research has suggested that exercise may be even more effective than medication. Maintaining a regular (healthy, non-obsessive) exercise routine has been proven to reduce stress, improve mood, enhance self-esteem, and increase energy levels. During exercise, the body releases chemicals called endorphins which interact with receptors in the brain to causing euphoric feelings and reduction in physical pain. .
5. Get More Sleep.
Nearly everyone feels a little crabby after a rough night's sleep. Disrupted sleep is common in many emotional disorders and it's difficult to know which started first — stress or poor sleep. A study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that losing just a few hours of sleep increases feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and exhaustion. (Click here for 10 tips on how to improve your sleep from the National Sleep Foundation.)
"People tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will descend like fine weather if you are fortunate. But happiness is the result of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly." ―Elizabeth Gilbert
Copyright © Finding Cloud9, Dr. Jamie Long