By Joe Borders,
Marriage and Family Therapist
December 18, 2018
10 Things You Can Do Right Now To Cope With Stress And Anxiety
We all struggle with stress and anxiety at times. Some of us deal with anxiety and/or stress on a regular basis. In these cases, stress and anxiety can really wear on the body and actually make you sick and generally unwell. Your body can only be in a state of anxiety and/or stress for so long before you start to feel negative physical effects. In this post I’m going to show you ten things you can do to reduce the effects of stress and anxiety. But first, let’s start out with a quick introduction to why all of this is important.
How do stress and anxiety effect the body?
When you feel stressed and/or anxious your body releases chemicals called corticosteroids which pretty much get the body ready for fight or flight. This is both a good and a bad thing. The fight or flight response is designed to help you be safe and stay alive in dangerous situations. The problem arises in the fact that we live in a world where there are very few things that make us stressed or anxious that we can actually fight or run away from.
We did not evolve in a world of deadlines
Our early ancestors evolved in a world where the things that were likely to cause them stress or anxiety were mostly things that they could fight or run away from. Picture yourself and your family existing thousands of years ago. If you were anxious or stressed it was likely because you needed food or something dangerous was occurring. If something dangerous was going down you got away from it or fought. If you needed food you found it.
The problem we face in our modern world is that the vast majority of things that bring us stress or anxiety are not things that we can fight or run away from. You can’t punch your boss in the face like you would a tiger or a bear and you can’t run away from your midterm in English. All of this means that when we are stressed or anxious our bodies are producing chemicals to get us ready to fight or run from something that we actually need to be able to come up with more long term solutions to.
Stress and anxiety can literally wear the body down
This is something I have to talk with clients about all the time. When you’ve got corticosteroids running through your body, but you can’t fight or run from something, two things happen:
- Your brain doesn’t understand what the heck is going on and it tries to find a clear and present danger. This is part of why we grab onto random things to be anxious about when we’re chronically stressed or anxious.
- Over time corticosteroids actually start to wear your body down and you will get sick, tired, inflamed, etc. When I talk with people about this one I like to refer to the concept of sitting at a stop light and revving your engine. Theoretically you’re getting yourself ready to really take off when the light turns green…..but if the light stays red for a really long time, you’re eventually going to burn out your engine.
How you can use all of this to your benefit
In most cases, when people have trouble with anxiety, it’s because of a disconnect between the brain’s automatic functions and their conscious thought processes. When something happens to make you stressed or anxious, the brain does its best to identify the source of your stress and anxiety and to get you ready to fight or run from it. All of this is automatic.
You can use this to your benefit. Just as the brain automatically responds to danger by making you feel stressed and anxious, it will also respond to you behaving in a way that is relaxed and calm by making you feel relaxed and calm. The most obvious example of this is the simple act of taking a deep breath.
Have you ever had a time when you were actually in possible danger, but then when the danger passed you took a deep breath and let out a sigh of relief? This is a reflex that the brain makes you do to initiate calming and relaxing. When you breathe that sigh of relief you can actually feel your body relaxing. One of the big tricks to “mastering” stress and anxiety is to find and practice ways to harness this effect in the body. Essentially, act calm and relaxed and your brain will follow.
Of course, truly “mastering” stress and anxiety is more complicated than this. I typically tell people that there are 5 major components in battling stress and anxiety:
- Recognize any triggers you have.
- Plan ahead for them. Part of this is practicing your coping skills.
- Recognize and accept your feelings of stress and anxiety and don’t fight them. Accept them as normal responses to what is making you stressed or anxious. This relates to mindfulness.
- When you feel stressed or anxious, use your coping skills.
- Remember that anxiety exists on a curve. At times it feels like it will keep getting worse and worse, but eventually it always hits a peak and then gradually goes away. If you can hold onto this knowledge and follow 1-4 then you can shorten the peak and return to calm and relaxed more quickly and easily.
Ten things you can do to trick your brain into switching to calming procedures
So that was a really long intro….didn’t mean to nerd out on you quite so much. Without further ado, the following are a bunch of things you can do when you’re stressed or anxious to get yourself into a better place and calm down. When learning any coping skills, they can seem corny or weird at first, but I encourage you to try some of these out. It’s important to practice them when you aren’t super stressed or anxious so that you’re familiar with them and ready when you do become stressed or anxious and actually need them.
Different coping skills work for different people, and we could easily make a list of hundreds of suggestions. These are just a few I have experience with and/or have written about in my personal blog. Take some time to try a few things, find what works for you, and stick with it…..but for sure try breathing exercises and mindfulness.
1. Breathing exercises
Breathing exercises are an invaluable tool in calming/relaxing when you’re stressed or anxious. By taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths, you can engage the brain’s natural, automatic calming responses. It actually turns out a lot of people breath totally wrong. You’re supposed to breathe with your belly, not your chest. If you’re chest breathing you’re taking in less oxygen and acting stressed/anxious. The brain responds to this signal by releasing fight or flight chemicals and making you feel more stressed or anxious. Check out the following post I wrote a year or so ago to read more about this and see a video I made to walk people through a simple breathing exercise I start my clients with.
2. Listen to relaxing music
This is another one that might seem kind of cliche, but listening to some good relaxing music can really help to put you in a place of calm. I refer people to the following video all the time. A study in 2017 found this music to be some of the most relaxing. Their study participants reported up to a 65% reduction in anxiety after listening to it. I encourage people to listen to something like this while practicing breathing exercises.
Find some way to distract yourself for a bit. I occasionally refer to a study done a couple of years back that found that participants reported a reduction in cravings for drugs, alcohol, and food after playing Tetris for a few minutes. I often refer to this study in the context of addiction, but I think the same principles can be applied to stress and anxiety. Find something to distract yourself and disconnect from what is making you stressed or anxious. Then return to it later when you aren’t responding from a gut level, automatic place of being triggered. This one is tricky because you don’t want to end up in a place where you get sucked into whatever you’re doing and end up procrastinating. Procrastination is usually a result of avoiding anxiety and can lead to heightened/prolonged anxiety. So take some time and allow yourself a moment to disconnect from your worries/stresses for a moment. But if there is something that needs to get done, get back to it when you can.
4. Distract yourself with some things that are oddly satisfying
On a similar note. I’ve known several people who have found that watching “oddly satisfying” videos on YouTube can be relaxing and offer a good way to take a couple of minutes out of your day to unwind. These videos typically consist of multiple short clips of things that just kind of fall into place in a way that most people find satisfying. Search for them on Youtube or check out the link below to see a couple of them that I like and read a blog post I wrote about them.
5. Practice good sleep hygiene
Lots and lots of people suck at sleeping. Turns out sleep is just like a lot of other health related things in life; you’ve really got to structure and maintain good habits to facilitate it. Just like going to the gym and eating right can help you keep in shape, there are lots of things you can do to help you sleep better. Check out the following link to read more about this.
6. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that involves fully focusing on one thing, such as your breathing, or sensations like sounds and touch, and recognizing thoughts as they come, letting them pass. A lot of therapists are using mindfulness in session to help their clients learn to calm, relax, and cope with stress and anxiety. Through mindfulness, people can become more aware of their automatic responses to things and gain more conscious control of their reactions.
I haven’t personally written anything exclusively about mindfulness yet, but the following two blog posts of mine touch on mindfulness. I really recommend at least watching the video in the “Gratitude: a practice in mindfulness” post.
7. Structure your environment for mental health
Your environment affects your mental health! If you’re having a hard time, do something to change your environment for the better. That can mean as little as going outside for a walk or as much as reorganizing your home. You can make all kinds of changes that can have a positive effect on your mental health. Just having a fish tank for example can lower your blood pressure and help you relax. Check out the following post to read more about this.
8. Get a pet
Dude. Pets are really great for your overall mental health.
9. Watch some feel good clips
The internet is full of videos you can watch to help you get your mind off of your stress for a bit. Take a look at the ones in these two posts.
10. Find stuff that motivates you and keep it close
We all have certain things that motivate us. Do something to keep whatever that is close to you. Maybe carry a picture of someone you love with you, or something that reminds you of your goals. Having something like this close to you can help you to let go of stress and anxiety and keep your mind on the bigger picture.
11: Bonus: Sniff something!
Have you ever noticed that certain scents have the ability to immediately take you back to an earlier time in your life and remind you of a special moment, person, place, etc.? Scent is intricately connected with emotions.
Turns out, one of the primary emotional centers of the brain, the amygdala, is directly connected to the nose and is only a couple of centimeters away from it. Essentially, everything you smell gets processed on an emotional level before the brain does anything else with it. This is why scents can so strongly and immediately evoke emotions.
Get yourself something that you think smells good! There really is something to things like aromatherapy. I know personally through my wife that a common pregnancy trick is to carry a lemon, stab it with your finger nails, and sniff it to reduce nausea. Scent can really help you!
One of my therapist friends opened up an online store where she sells home made organic soaps, candles, balms, etc. that you could use for this purpose. Check it out at Twin Alchemy.
Do what works for you
Remember that you have to find your own coping skills that work for you. These have been several suggestions that I’ve seen work for some people, but you may need to tweak them to make them your own, or do something entirely different. The important thing is to pay attention to your body and take care of yourself. However that looks for you, do the things you need to do for self care.
In addition to all of these things, it can always be helpful to have someone to talk with. If you’re having trouble with anxiety and/or stress management, you might benefit from therapy. SacWellness can help you find therapists throughout the greater Sacramento area.
About the Author
Joe Borders is a marriage and family therapist located in Roseville and Sacramento. He is primarily a sex positive gender therapist, but also specializes in working with couples, teens, addiction, and the LGBTQ community. Joe is also the owner and founder of SacWellness. You can find out more about him by visiting his sacwellness listing or by visiting his website: therapy and counseling in Roseville and Sacramento