If you’ve ever struggled with stress and anxiety, you know how debilitating it can be to the quality of your life and your relationships.
So we asked 15 expert therapists and counsellors on Australia Counselling Directory for their best tips to help beat stress and anxiety.
These therapists are often recommending these strategies to their clients to help them overcome anxiety, reduce their stress and improve their mood.
The benefits of this include the ability to be more productive, make better decisions and live life your life more fully. And who doesn’t want that?
Here’s what our expert therapists had to share when it comes to beating stress and anxiety. Enjoy!
Notice your anxiety. Notice where in your body you’re feeling anxious. It might be ‘butterflies’ in your stomach, tightness in your chest, or a feeling of restlessness. The most common reaction is to try to stop feeling this way. However, the more you try to ignore or pretend that you aren’t feeling anxious, the more the anxiety persists.
Make friends with your anxiety. When you don’t fight against your anxiety, it actually becomes more manageable. Notice what you’re telling yourself: “Oh no! Not this again. What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t it just go away? If I don’t do something about it quickly, it is just going to get worse…” It is amazing how many negative messages your brain sends you in the space of a minute.
Remember to: Take 10 deep breaths slowly. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Notice where in your body you are feeling the most anxiety. Pay attention to what is happening to you physically. Once you become aware of your anxiety, try telling yourself: “It’s okay. I’m just feeling anxious right now;” or “I’m having an anxious day today;” or “It’s okay for me to be anxious.” You actually make some ‘psychological’ space for your anxious feelings to change.
Learn your triggers. What is it that sets off your anxiety? It might be something like certain memories, or specific people or types of people. Or it might be certain situations at work or school. Every time you feel anxious, make a note in your diary identifying what the triggers were for each episode. Once you know your triggers you can begin to understand them, which in turn will help you to eliminate them… or you can conquer them by learning to modify the negative thoughts and behaviours that you have in relation to the trigger.
Accept that life can be stressful – and that you can’t control everything. Before getting too wound up about something that has happened, take a little time to work out if it’s worth the worry. Are you giving the problem too much weight? Will this problem haunt you next week, or will you have forgotten about it by then? If it’s the latter, accept that you’re frustrated or angry with what happened, but then try to move on without the baggage.
Ring a friend, have a good laugh and see if they can help you replace your negative thoughts with positive ones.
Separate yourself emotionally from the stress. For example – driving in the rush hour may be a stressor. It is what it is. You can’t make the traffic go away and you have to get to work but if you buy into the stress it becomes you and you will risk driving aggressively or getting uptight. Be prepared. Leave a little earlier so you don’t feel rushed. Have some nice music to keep you company and relaxed. Don’t allow the stress outside to become the stress inside.
If you are feeling stressed, make a list of the things that are stressing you out. Make a decision to deal as soon as possible with at least one or two of the things on your list today. Aim to deal with all of the things if possible within a week. Plan a reward for yourself for when you are done.
If a personal problem is representing the stress in your life, consider sharing the problem with another person who is not emotionally involved such as a counselor or a trusted mentor. Sometimes a problem shared is indeed a problem halved and the stress may be put into a better perspective.
All our anxieties are played out in our minds and not in the real world. Making up worrying scenarios is our minds way of dealing with any perceived future threats. These negative stories bring about fear and when we are fearful we cannot be curious or optimistic about life.
When anxious, breathe deeply and concentrate on the breathing. Observe the difference. Now look at something around you, a chair, a picture, a person, etc, and stay in the now. Anxiety only lives in our heads about future worries.
Meditation (see free phone apps Take a Break, Calm or Headspace) allows us to observe, for the first time, the noise and anxiety our mind is producing. Meditation slows down mind noise. 15 minutes of daily meditation will change your life.
Stop churning. Churning over events and ‘what ifs’ is never, ever productive. When you find yourself churning tell your mind to stop. Sing a nursery rhythm instead.
Stay active. An idle mind easily makes up many stories. Have a plan B. Go for a walk, see a movie, ring a friend, do a yoga class – just do something to condition your mind not to worry and churn.
Listen to your body and it will tell you when you’re stressed. We all experience stress bodily and each one of us has a different ‘language’ the body uses to communicate to us that it feels stressed. The more familiar you are with the subtle (early) signs the faster you can take action to address your stress.
Walk don’t run! A number of good quality studies have pretty convincingly shown that walking can alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, can improve quality of life and some studies have even shown walking reduces the costs associated with treating anxiety and depression. For mindfulness, walking provides an opportunity to engage in the environment and potentially with other people.
Work on your friendships – maintaining social connectedness is a vital mental health strategy for all of us. It increases confidence and our sense of wellbeing and loneliness leads to worsening anxiety and stress.
Focus on a pattern of breathing that gradually increases your exhalation while keeping your inhalation constant. Follow the steps in the chart below.
|Step||Inhale: Number of Counts||Exhale: Number of Counts|
* Continue Step 5 until you’re relaxed (10-20 minutes, if possible).
Self-Soothing: Generally people find soaking in a warm bath, infused with bath salts, helps reduce anxiety. Make this a daily 20-30-minute ritual to help you wind down. Turn off your mobile, dim the lighting, light candles, use incense or relaxing music to sustain a peaceful mood. Use visualization or breathing techniques to enhance your sense of tranquility and wellbeing.
Visualisation: Sit or recline quietly, comfortably. Close your eyes. Imagine revisiting a favorite place that you’ve found restful and peaceful e.g. a waterfall, a beach, a rainforest, a beautiful church or temple. You may also conjure up an imaginary place e.g. floating, light as a feather, on a fluffy white cloud, over a calm azure sea. Feel the warmth of the sun, the faint breeze ruffling your hair. Smell the salt water below. Sustain this image, and the peaceful sensations it evokes, for as long as possible. Revisit this place often.
Change your view of stress and anxiety. Research now shows that viewing your body’s reactions to stress as normal (e.g. “my racing heart is energising me for this”) literally changes the body’s chemical and biological response to stress (such as increased oxytocin output and major arteries staying open and relaxed). See Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk for more.
Do the opposite of conventional wisdom – so turn toward and ‘sit with’ the so-called ‘negatives’ of life. The above is one practical example; another is in addressing emotions connected to stress or anxiety. Welcome your emotional reactions, but follow what your body is doing, not your mind. This is a kind of mindfulness practice that – at the end of a short process – brings relief, a sense of resourcefulness, and importantly – insight (into yourself and the situation). Insights that help you move forward practically.
Experiment with the above in your own way – theories are only broad intellectual knowledge; until you turn them into personal and ‘uniquely-you’ transformations. And transformation tends to come from cycles of testing an idea, reflecting on the experience, modifying the theory to you, and trying again.
Practicing acceptance: Try saying “I’m noticing something feeling tense/stressed/anxious. Place your hand where you can feel it in your body. Yes, that’s how it is just now. Okay. That’s just how it is just now.” Notice any shifts in sensations and feelings.
Pausing & Playful Breathing: Pause a few seconds…to give yourself a mental, emotional and physical break. Take in a long, slow, deep breath and let out a longer, slower breath. You will soothe your nervous system. Let your breath flow like water – like waves flowing in and out. A slow, smooth, naturally settling rhythm. As you do this let your shoulders drop. Breathe. Roll your shoulders. Smile. Just a little Mona Lisa smile. Playfully shake out any tension. Let any tension drop out through your fingers and feet. Yawn and smile. Shake out any tension that is left. Pause and notice how you are now.
Perspective with Peripheral Vision: Get a wider view. Literally. Stand up and look out to the horizon. Let your eyes soften and take in more of the view not looking at anything in particular. Let the corners of your eyes take in the view. Notice the space around you and the space between things. Blink slowly giving your eyes a quiet moment. Let your eyes rest again on the horizon.
One of the easiest and most useful exercise I found is the following breathing exercise: breathe in through your nose for 3 counts and breathe out through your mouth for 5. You can play with the length of the breath. The most important part is that breathing out needs to be longer and through your mouth, that will kick in the parasympathetic nervous system and help you to calm down.
Do it a few times and observe how your heart rate slows down and your breathing becomes deeper. It is also helpful to find soothing resources in your body when you are not stressed. So pay attention how it feels in your chest, tummy or shoulder when you are doing something you really enjoy, stay with that sensation, explore. When you feel the stress coming up notice it, don’t fight it and try to take your attention to the parts that are your resources.
Orienting in the here and now by moving your head, neck and eyes, really observing what is around you will help the unconscious reactive part of your brain to notice that you are not in danger, and you will calm down.
Be aware of your self- talk. When you can observe the negative things you are saying about yourself or a situation, question it. Try seeing it in another light – (objectively). This separates you from the problem and can relieve the angst you are feeling.
Try not allowing your thoughts to go off on a tangent. Our imaginations are so powerful and our stories can over dramatise and make a catastrophe of the situation. Try telling yourself, this is not good or bad, it just is. By not attaching a story to your thoughts, it allows for you to take action, instead of getting paralysed in the story you are telling yourself.
Lastly, remember to breathe. When you actively breathe it calms the body sensations down as well as putting space between your thoughts and your actions. This allows you to respond to a situation rather than react to it. Try this – breathe in for 5, hold for 5, and breathe out for 5. Do this a few times and experience the difference you feel. This technique is also good at bed time if you are finding it hard to fall asleep.
Stress is a fact of life which we cannot avoid but we can learn how to better deal with it. Just telling yourself to relax will in most cases not only NOT work but might put even more pressure on yourself.
A way of regulating and containing stress is getting to know how it plays out for you. Noticing how and where you experience it in your body (Do you feel it in your stomach, your chest, is your heart beating faster?) and identify negative patterns that accompany feelings of stress (e.g. ‘Are you focussing on the lack in your life, being highly critical of self and others, obsessing over mistakes’).
Being mindful and becoming more aware of your thoughts and feelings allows you to have more control over your life. Research has shown that mindfulness not only lowers the heart rate, stops releasing stress hormones into the blood stream, slows and deepens the breath, but also fosters compassion with self and others.
One of the most comprehensive health practices available is Yoga. It incorporates stress management techniques such as breathing, meditation, visualisation and movement. By focusing on the breath and deepening the inhalations and exhalations, you are quieting the mind and switching on the relaxation response.
Another effective way to reduce your stress levels is to employ a self-empowering tool like EFT or Meridian tapping which is based on the meridian system (similar to acupressure). By stimulating certain meridian points with your fingertips while saying a self-acceptance statement that describes the issue you help unblock unresolved emotions or experiences that have been stored in the body.
Dealing with stress and anxiety is most common in today’s society. Mild stress and anxiety is normal, the bodies usual fight or flight response, however recognise when stress and anxiety overwhelms you and take action.
Are you stressed or anxious? Notice if your sleeping well, eating well, functioning as usual; if you aren’t what are the triggers?
In a stressful or anxious moment, take in deep slow breaths and slowly breathe out each time, then choose what the best next action would be.
Seek out relaxation, stress and anxiety management therapies, find what works for you. Take some time each day to do something you enjoy, something that makes you smile or laugh.
Research shows that the simple process of meditation can reduce stress and the act of being fully present reduces anxiety. There’s no need to become a Zen master, meditation can be brief and simple and being present is to not getting caught up in past situations or anticipate the future.
Make the anxiety and stress more concrete. For instance, if you are concerned about a situation between you and your boss, get clear about what is bugging you about it and what things your boss might actually say. Then, work out how you will deal with these things. This technique help takes the worrisome unknown out of the situation and turns it into a plan for action.
Try to move your attention away from the anxious thoughts and towards the sensations in your body that go along with the anxious thoughts. Address the physical sensations of your anxiety through doing things to soothe yourself physically rather than combatting the thoughts. If you start to think about the situation again, move your attention back to your body.
Seek out some support, but support of a particular sort. Choose someone who you know is prepared to listen empathically to you talk and can take your anxiety seriously, but someone who is not going to get bogged down in your anxiety, get overwhelmed, or start telling you what to do. Anxious people often respond well to a compassionate and strong other, finding that they ‘borrow’ their calmness.
Think symptoms not source. When stress and anxiety are building, first, pay attention to what you’re experiencing. Notice your symptoms. Is it tightness in your chest? Are you agitated, on the brink of tears or an angry outburst? Is your heart pounding or your stomach churning?
This way, you pay attention to the fact that your stress or ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction, is ignited. Observe your symptoms, and you rob your worries and problems of oxygen. You stop fanning the flames of stress and anxiety.
Slow yourself down. Counter your stress reaction by slowing down. Forcefully resist the urge to rush (another symptom). Slowing your exhalation is effective. As you breathe, lengthen and slow your out-breath as much as possible. Slow belly breathing (rather than short and shallow in the chest) stifles those stress and anxiety flames.
Just do it. Stress and anxiety make us withdraw, avoid, delay—we’ll do anything not to get burnt. Are you procrastinating on a task or avoiding your boss? Withdrawing socially, or from your relationships? Delaying asking for help perhaps? All of these are understandable behaviours, but all of them add fuel to the fire. Feel the heat and do it anyway. Every time you do, you build resilience and stress-proof yourself a little more.
When you are in a calm state make a list “WHAT TO DO WHEN I FEEL OVERWHELMED”: Keep your list simple and practical such as remember to breathe, call a friend / a help line, draw, go for a walk, or listen to your favourite music. When you are actually feeling overwhelmed refer to the list and work your way down without having to think.
Our natural tendency when dealing with unpleasant feelings is to push them away with usually poor result! In this exercise you instead connect with the uncomfortable feeling and locate it in your body. Give it a shape, a colour and a texture. Then gently breathe into it and as you breathe out allow it to soften a little bit and then a little bit more. Repeat to yourself a coping statement such as “It is only a feeling”, “It will soon go away”, “It’s okay”
It has been said “The terror is not in the bang but in the anticipation of the bang”. For a fortnight write down all the anxious “what if” thoughts on pieces of paper that you put in an envelope named “Bang”. At the end of the fortnight check the content of the envelope and compare it with has actually happened.