How to manage stress
Reclaim calm with these expert-approved approaches to dealing with stress and anxiety.
Health Agenda magazine
You may be feeling tense or wound up, have a racing mind, shallow breathing or a faster heart rate, or perhaps are noticing changes in your appetite and that your sleep is interrupted.
Many of us grapple with symptoms of stress and anxiety – 35 per cent of Australians report having a significant level of psychological distress and one in four experiences anxiety at some stage, according to recent surveys by beyondblue and the Australian Psychological Society.
But while the terms stress and anxiety are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a difference. We look at how to distinguish between them – and the strategies to help you reclaim your inner equilibrium.
What's the difference?
The good kind of stress drives you to get things done, and the bad kind has you feeling overwhelmed and frazzled.
“Stress is not always in response to negative experiences, and may arise in any situation that requires some sort of response, change or adjustment,” explains Emma Sheerman, psychologist at The Anxiety & Stress Clinic.
While stress typically occurs in response to a current or imminent pressure (a looming deadline, for instance), anxiety tends to be more future related.
“Anxiety may be a feeling of fear or uncertainty about future events and our perceived ability to cope, should these events arise,” says Sheerman.
According to the Sleep Health Foundation, symptoms of chronic stress are eclectic and include anything from headaches and muscle tension to irritability, poor sleep, low immunity and an upset stomach.
Beyondblue reports that while there are many anxiety disorders, generalised anxiety disorder is linked to persistent worrying that can interfere with everyday activities such as work and socialising.
Extreme anxiety can also manifest as panic attacks, which involve sudden surges of fear and symptoms such as sweating, trembling, feeling nauseous, dizzy or breathless.
Strategies that help
Prioritise a healthy lifestyle
“What helps us stay mentally well is very similar to what keeps us physically well,” says Dr Stephen Carbone, Policy, Evaluation and Research Leader at beyondblue.
A healthy diet and regular exercise help to maintain mental wellbeing. So does prioritising sleep – a 2013 University of California, Berkeley, study found a lack of sleep fires up brain regions that contribute to excessive worrying. Aim for seven to nine hours of shut-eye a night.
Challenge unhelpful thoughts
Anxiety is often underpinned by what are called ‘cognitive distortions’, or negative and unhelpful thoughts.
“The first port of call is recognising if you’re having an unhelpful thought and asking, ‘Is this thought helpful?’ and ‘Is there an alternative way to look at it?’ ” advises Sydney psychologist Dr Maria Scoda.
“For instance, rather than thinking, ‘I’ll never be able to get this work done’, reframe it to ‘I’ve completed many projects before; there’s no reason I won’t get this one done’.”
Ease up on yourself
Overloading your schedule with responsibilities and commitments is a fast track to feeling stressed.
“Focus on what is important to you, and use these values to guide your decisions and behaviour,” says Sheerman. “If you value looking after your health and wellbeing, you might choose to put that pile of paperwork aside to take a walk outdoors instead.”
If you don’t tick off all your ‘to dos’ in a day, that’s fine too. “It’s about being able to accept and be compassionate towards yourself,” says Dr Carbone.
Stress and anxiety are uncomfortable feelings, but trying to ignore or avoid them isn’t the answer. Being mindful of how you’re feeling can help you feel calmer faster.
“Explore your experience of stress and anxiety and notice what’s happening internally and around you,” Sheerman advises. “This allows you to step back and ask, ‘How can I respond to this in a helpful way?’ ”
You can also use mindfulness during the day, by sitting outdoors at lunchtime and tuning in to the sights and sounds around you, for instance.
“Focusing on and enjoying what you’re doing in the moment gives your mind some reprieve from the stressors in your life,” says Dr Scoda.
To find a psychologist service through the Australian Psychological Society, visit psychology.org.au