Imagine you’re in an Uber and short on time, hoping to get to the airport to make a flight. Stressful, right? It’s not a feeling most people like. Yet that same sense of pressure is what prompted you to hurry up and order your ride a few minutes faster to make sure you get there in time. Many people consider stress to be “bad,” but to some degree it’s normal, appropriate and unavoidable—even helpful. Stress signals your body to be alert and ready for action. The problem comes when stress lingers long after the immediate need for it has passed, or when it happens so frequently that it becomes a chronic condition. Folks in the current culture often regard stress as a given, but stress can be destructive if it becomes the default state.
From a biological standpoint, we’re wired to respond to stress for survival. Back in the days of the cavemen, how fast one reacted to a charging animal meant the difference between his dinner or his death. Even though most people don’t experience life threatening danger often today, stress can affect you the very same way. When there is a real or perceived threat in your life—such as missing your flight, making a work deadline, or getting dumped by a lover—your body is still signaled to go into overdrive. Even when your life isn’t at stake, it can feel like that at a primal level. Everyone encounters stressful situations. But how much stress is in your life, as well as the extent to which it affects you, is worth considering.
Stress vs. Anxiety
The umbrella term of “stress” is tossed around in our culture a lot these days. In some cases, it’s almost a badge of honor. Someone saying that they are “super stressed” may be anything from a confession to bragging rights for heroic endurance. On the other hand, someone suffering from anxiety isn’t likely to toss that out in casual conversation. Saying “I’m super anxious,” may sound vulnerable, like a sign of weakness, even though it might be a more accurate characterization of what they are going through.
Stress can usually be traced back to a source; for example, someone who needs to take the MCAT test to get into medical school in two weeks and hasn’t started studying. Anxiety may have identifiable causes as well (for example, “Did I leave the stove turned on?”) However, anxiety doesn’t need a reason. While stress could be caused by anything, anxiety can be caused by nothing.
Let’s take the earlier example a step further. Say you made it to the airport in time for your flight. You’re in your seat, ready for departure. Your stress melts once that airplane lifts off the ground. (Phew! I made it! Time to chillax.) By contrast, the person sitting next to you may be experiencing anxiety that will last for the entire trip. (O.K. we’re in the air. I just hope we don’t have a crash landing.) Notice that the source of worry shifts, as this passenger goes from one hypothetical fear to the next and those feelings of unease may remain. Anxiety is like background noise. It’s just there, even when all is well.
A bit of anticipatory fear might help you avert disaster by causing you to think ahead. That makes for good crisis management. That said, many worries are a waste of time and energy, adversely affecting quality of life. One thing to keep in mind is whether you have control over the situation or not. Some things—including the mechanical condition of the airplane—are things you have no control over. Obsessing over things you can’t control may do you more harm than good. Even though anxious people may understand this intellectually, however, that doesn’t mean they can just turn anxiety off. Anxiety is insidious and any number of interventions may be necessary to address it.
What Can You Do to Relieve Stress and Anxiety?
Each person has a unique experience with an anxiety and stress, and therefore there is no right or wrong way to deal with it. You know when your own quality of life is being adversely affected by chronic stress or anxiety that is out of proportion with any real danger. When that’s the case, where do you turn for help?
For starters, check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling, and that will help you to discern what helps you vs. what does not.
Some things you can do on your own may sound obvious. However, some commonsense coping skills can go a long way. Here are some suggestions to consider:
- Allow yourself a good 8 to 9 hours of sleep to recharge. Stress depletes your immune system. You need extra rest.
- Get plenty of exercise to channel that energy and lift your mood. A brisk walk daily is a good minimum.
- Eat a nutritious diet and avoid stimulants. (Yes, we’re talkin’ coffee. Try switching your beverage after your morning cup).
- Engage in calming techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation or mindfulness. This teaches you not to follow every pesky thought down the rabbit hole.
- Indulge in the soothing effects of nature; sunshine, fresh air, earth, sea and star gazing can be grounding.
- Enjoy time with a pet. The eyes of an animal are a good reminder to lighten up and let your mind relax into your heart.
- Schedule a 90-minute massage or take a long, relaxing bath. Do this more often than you think you should. Self-care isn’t indulgent, it’s medicinal.
- Take time out to laugh. Interaction is important but do it on your terms. (i.e. if hosting friends at your home is stressful, go offsite. If your best pal is chronically negative, pick someone who helps you to lighten up).
- Schedule time to do nothing or play. Balance is key.
- Talk to someone, such as a medical doctor or licensed psychotherapist. Enlist the help of an expert to get substantial support and find lasting relief.
We don’t have to feel bad about feeling stressed. It’s normal. But that doesn’t mean it has to be chronic. You’re in charge. Do your best to keep stress in its place. And if you suffer from anxiety, accept that and relax. Don’t be anxious about having anxiety. It’s human and there’s help. Breathe in Gratitude, exhale Relief. Repeat.