How to Manage Stress and Anxiety Like a Pro
A science-based strategy to stop worrying.
Posted Oct 13, 2020
If you're like most people I've spoken with over the last month or so, lately you've been feeling exhausted, stuck, and overwhelmed, and unsure of what to do and how to move forward. Between politics and life changes brought on by the pandemic, it makes sense that many people are struggling right now.
In fact, a recent study by Gurvich et al. (2020) reports that 47 percent of individuals are experiencing some degree of psychological distress from the effects of the pandemic, with women experiencing higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress than men.
With everything going on in the world today, it’s more critical than ever before to effectively manage stress. But successful stress management is hard because your brain is naturally programmed to look for threats and to jump to conclusions when faced with uncertainty. And right now, we're all faced with a lot of uncertainty.
When the brain perceives something to be a threat, the stress response is activated by the amygdala. Unfortunately, at the same time, the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for emotional regulation and critical thinking, gets shut down. Because of this, worry, fear, and anxiety hinder your ability to make wise decisions, and instead, when faced with stress, you likely assume the worst and either emotionally react or become paralyzed by fear.
How you cope with stress and challenges matters. Researchers have found that during the pandemic, self-blame, venting, and self-distraction have all been linked to poorer mental health (Gurvich et al., 2020). However, Gurvich and colleagues also found that those with better mental heath use positive reframing to proactively cope in the face of stress. Through the use of positive reframing, we can apply the simple steps below during times of stress to take back control – of our thoughts, emotions, and responses.
1) Take several deep breaths. When feeling stressed, take a few breaths with your diaphragm (with your stomach expanding as you inhale). This can help calm your brain and body, and it will better equip you to use the questions below to engage the critical thinking part of the brain.
2) Ask yourself these four questions:
- “Where do I have control right now?”
- “Are my thoughts about the situation based on facts or assumptions?”
- “What'a a more helpful way of thinking about this situation?”
- “What’s the most helpful action I can take right now?
When we're stressed, we often get stuck focusing on the "problem". But by identifying where you have control, assessing the accuracy of your thoughts, positively reframing the way you're looking at the situation, and taking productive action, you can handle stress and anxiety like a pro. Taking a few minutes to work through these steps when you're anxious, stuck, or overwhelmed can help you prevent burnout, enhance your well-being and bring your best self to any situation you face.
Gurvich, C., Thomas, N., Thomas, E. H., Hudaib, A.-R., Sood, L., Fabiatos, K., … Kulkarni, J. (2020). Coping styles and mental health in response to societal changes during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Social Psychiatry.