While some stress and anxiety is completely normal, even healthy to a certain extent, the levels we’ve been experiencing are, to use a very popular word these days: unprecedented. Here, Saarim Aslam, Scribd Coach author of Making Sense of Anxiety and Stress: A Comprehensive Stress Management Toolkit, talks us through some simple techniques to help manage stress and anxiety, plus how to know when it’s time to seek professional help.
We use anxiety (which is more long-term) and stress (more short-term) interchangeably, says Aslam, but there are some subtle differences. “Stress happens in relation to a trigger. So as an example, if a student is going through exams, the trigger would be exams, and they would feel stressed from that. That stress is the demand placed on their mind or their body,” he says. "On the other hand, anxiety is a worry or fear that's there even in the absence of a trigger. You don't need a trigger in order to feel anxious. As an example, someone with extreme social anxiety could be in their house and still feel anxious and worried about social situations.”
Triggers aren’t always bad, or negative: That exam is important. Giving a speech is usually a good thing. Doing a workout is a bodily stressor with positive results. The fleeting experience can be generally good. “Whether it's stress or anxiety, you can experience it for a very small period of time, like with that example of someone who’s stressed about an exam,” says Aslam. “You might be stressed for a couple of weeks or a month with that. In the grand scheme of things, that is quite short term. Whereas, you may have something more long term and chronic: Someone with social anxiety might experience that throughout their lifetime.” Anxiety tends to be more chronic and long-term, while stress tends to be short- term. However, stress can linger if the trigger is an ongoing issue, like a stressful job.
Remember that stress isn’t always a bad thing. Reframing it as positive, or at least putting it into perspective, can help change your brain chemistry and determine how well you can overcome it. "There's an interesting study done by a Stanford psychologist that found that people's perception of stress mattered more to ill health and mortality than the actual stress itself,” Aslam says. "So if someone perceived stress to be damaging to their health, they had a 43% increased likelihood of mortality. But if someone saw stressors as being more adaptive, and they embraced the stress, they did not have that increase. Basically, that increased risk in ill health was brought on by being stressed about stress! That study shows just how a slight perception change can actually have huge positive results.”
Ultimately, the actual physical symptoms of anxiety and excitement are the same, Aslam says. Keeping that in mind can help change your approach to stressful, anxiety-producing situations so you can monitor your perception. "So if your anxiety often manifests because you perceive something to be more dangerous than what it really is, my job as a trainee clinical psychologist is to try and help people create more helpful interpretations of that perception. We want to lower their perception that the thing is dangerous. For example, with social anxiety, we want people to create the interpretation that speaking to someone new at a party is not as dangerous as you feel like it is. We can develop this new hypothesis for you, which can make you more adaptive.”
The magic of reframing the situation
Since the physical symptoms of anxiety and excitement are similar, the next time you’re in a stressful situation — like a tight deadline at work, the start line of a 5K race, a cocktail party where you don’t know anyone — pause and try a reframe. Rather than being stressed about the deadline, can you find excitement or a challenge instead? “Everyone has different physical kinds of feelings or sensations that they have in a stressful experience,” Aslam says. “It's quite common for your heart to start beating faster, your palms to get sweaty, your breathing rate to increase, or even feeling a bit dizzy. Those are the kinds of physical sensations that we see in stress and anxiety.”
Think about it: Those butterflies in your stomach also start fluttering when something really exciting is about to happen, right? “Sometimes it's your perception that makes the difference. You can turn anxiety into a positive, adaptive stress or even into something exciting,” Aslam asserts.
Use physical stress to push through mental stress
Good news: The physical stress of exercising can actually help push away mental stress by giving your brain a bit of a reset — a shower of feel-good hormones, if you will. “The endorphin rush that you get when you exercise changes your brain chemistry,” Aslam explains. “There are all these feel-good hormones that are released when you workout: Endorphins rushing around your body along with serotonin and dopamine, and that's going to automatically have a positive impact on your mood. There are a lot of theories out there that link a low level of serotonin and dopamine to depression and to low mood. So if exercise naturally increases those hormones, it’s going to have a positive effect.”
Write or talk through stress and anxiety
Internalizing stress and anxiety tends to amplify those feelings, rather than calming them down and getting them out. Writing down or talking through your feelings — decluttering your mind, so to speak — can help release those emotions. “Sometimes it's best to just get a pad and a pen, and write out what you’re feeling in the moment,” says Aslam. “We tend to ask people to sit down at a few different times of day and write down the different thoughts that are going through their mind at those times. That can help get things out of your mind, even things you didn’t realize were weighing on you. And you can then work a little bit more logically and practically with those issues.”
If journaling doesn’t work for you, talking to a friend or even just speaking your feelings out loud to yourself may be helpful.
Try the 5-4-3-2-1 method
One of Aslam’s favorite quick exercises to calm down when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. “This exercise is just getting you into the present moment and out of your head,” says Aslam. “That will help calm your brain down and give you a bit of space.”
Here’s how it works: Look for five things you can see right now. Then, listen for four things you can hear. Then, sniff around for three things you can smell. Pick two things you can touch. Work your way down that list.
It might be tempting to hide under your covers, skip reading and watching all news and just avoiding the current reality of the world in general: Between COVID, politics, economic and environmental crises, and so many other issues in the world right now, the general levels of stress and anxiety caused just by living in 2022 are high. The pandemic certainly caused an increase in general stress and anxiety, says Aslam. But while he understands the desire to tune out the news — or the opposite desire, to spend all day doomscrolling and reading every article that comes out — he says there’s a better solution.
“Try to limit the amount of time that you watch the news, or set boundaries on times of day you check the news. Finding a way to stay informed but not glued to the screen is a better strategy than trying to eliminate it altogether,” he says. "I think it's important to keep up with current affairs. And really, living in the world today, you’re going to be confronted with it as people talk about it or TVs play in the background. But you can limit yourself. I'm a big believer that in your spare time, you should be doing things you enjoy, not adding stress to your life.”
Figure out what works for you
“It's easy to read so many different ways to decrease stress and anxiety, then get stressed about doing all of the things!” says Aslam. “You do need to test different methods out to see what works for you, though. The 5-4-3-2-1 method might not be for you. Writing down your thoughts might help. Scheduling a set time in your day to sit and simply let yourself worry might help. Try these different methods and see what works. For me, I know I like working out, but find mindfulness exercises really difficult, for example.”
He also suggests simply taking the time for things that make you happy. “Don't give up on things that you enjoy. Book in things that you’ll look forward to — and I don’t mean things you think you should be doing, I mean things you actually enjoy! Doing these things that you enjoy makes it easier to keep stress and anxiety levels lower.”
Know when to get help
Of course, anxiety and chronic stress can’t simply be switched off with a quick reframe. Some people are going to need help dealing with high levels of anxiety, and that’s absolutely OK and normal. "If reframing situations isn’t working, and you're not getting rid of that anxiety or that stress that you're experiencing, it’s a good idea to see an expert,” says Aslam. “If you feel like your stress or anxiety is having a significant impact in your life, impacting your work, impacting how you interact with people, then I would say that it's probably time to seek some help. It comes down to if things are having a significant impact on your daily functioning.”
You may not even need a long-term therapy solution: A therapist might help you hone in on some better coping mechanisms that feel right for you. Not everyone will do well with certain journaling exercises, hitting the gym, taking a bath, meditating, or reframing situations. Don’t try to ignore chronic stress or anxiety: Take charge of your mental health!