Stress, Worry, and Anxiety
Stress, worry, and anxiety. If you search these terms on the internet, you may think that writers seem to describe the same thing. Yet there is a difference. How can you tell if your experience is a normal stress response or a more troublesome problem that calls for professional help?
Dealing with Stress
Stress can be defined as the physical response to anything that makes a demand on us. These demands are called stressors and they can be either positive or negative. Some stressors may include things like commuting to and from school or work every day, work or school deadlines, or getting a promotion. Stressors can be events that are relatively harmless, such as watching a scary movie or riding a roller coaster. Some stressors are major, such as marriage or divorce, serious illness, birth or death of a loved one, or a car accident. Other stressors are extreme, such as exposure to violence, war, or tornadoes and hurricanes, which can lead to traumatic stress reactions. How we cope with stressors can ultimately enhance views of ourselves or lead to downward spiral in our mental and physical health.
The National Institute of Mental Health offers these suggestions for coping with stress:
- Seek help from a qualified mental health care provider if you are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, have suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope.
- Get appropriate health care for existing or new health problems.
- Stay connected with people who can provide emotional and other support. Ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations to reduce stress due to work burdens or family issues, such as caring for a loved one.
- Recognize signs of your body’s response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily irritated, feeling depressed, and having low energy.
- Set priorities-decide what must get done and what can wait and learn to say ‘no’ to new tasks if they are putting you into overload.
- Note what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
- Avoid dwelling on problems. If you can’t do this on your own, seek help from a qualified mental health professional who can guide you.
- Exercise regularly-just 30 minutes per day of gentle walking can help boost mood and reduce stress.
- Schedule regular times for healthy and relaxing activities.
- Explore stress coping programs, which may incorporate meditation, yoga, tai chi, or other gentle exercises.
How to Handle Worry
Worry can be defined repeatedly dwelling on problems without resolution. It is a characteristically negative thinking style that’s common to both anxiety and depression. Signs of worrying include ruminating over past events or obsessively thinking about some potentially negative future outcome. Worry takes a lot of mental energy and achieves very little. It’s actually counter-productive. (I had a client once tell me that if she worried about something, excessively, whatever was her fear would not come to pass. That’s called magical thinking.) It can impair a person’s problem-solving ability on smaller concerns, thus serve to maintain the person’s worrying and low mood. Left unaddressed, it eventually can result in clinical anxiety and depressive disorders.
Many of the strategies mentioned above to help cope with stress are also effective with people who worry excessively. For example, talk with a friend about what concerns you. Often in having to explain the problem “out loud,” you discover a solution to the problem. Early in my work life, I was faced with a problem on how to accomplish a task. I went into a colleague’s office and began to tell him about the problem in detail. Within five minutes, I suddenly realized the solution. I thanked my colleague (who never said a word the whole time) and left to implement the solution. You might achieve similar results by writing down your problem.
However, if you think you engage in a negative thinking style, you might benefit from the help of a mental health professional to help you strengthen positive problem-solving skills. Based upon the person’s unique strengths and needs, I teach clients a variety of skills to strengthen their problem-solving abilities and reduce self-defeating habits, thereby reducing stress.