We live in an age of anxiety – rising costs, threats from foreign countries, political polarization, and a full -blown war in Ukraine. It is no wonder that people are turning off the radio and television because there is so much negative news. There is good reason to believe that this is at least one small step to taking back control of our lives and trying to quiet and soothe our restless minds and racing emotions.
If I have anything new to say about managing anxiety, it would be that stress management should be thought of as a new hobby. After all, people take up hobbies to relax, enjoy themselves, add something different to their routines, and to improve the quality of their lives. Stress management can achieve all these goals. It can be a very worthwhile hobby.
A first step in managing stress is to take out a pencil and paper and make a two-list inventory. Label Column A on the left side of your paper with the title, “Major Stressors in my Life.” Column B, on the right, should be entitled, “Things I Do To Manage These Stressors.” Column A might include things like financial pressures, worry about my child, their progress in school, choice of friends (or bullying), your work stressors, a difficult boss, managing your weight, or other health concerns that may worry you. In Column B, on the right side of the paper, you should list the things you are currently doing to manage these stressors. Things like taking a daily walk, prayer, and quiet time at the beginning and/or at the end of the day may be things you do, or perhaps you watch funny movies or subscribe to a joke of the day app. Whatever you do, write it down.
Once you have completed your inventory, make note of how long each list is. Does Column A come up considerably longer than Column B? This suggests that there are several factors that you worry about, but there are fewer things you do regularly to manage these factors. If Column B is longer than Column A, this suggests that you are making an effort to manage your anxiety. If both columns are about equal in length, you are thoughtful about addressing your worries. The stress reliever list (Column B) should be longer and filled with things that are enjoyable. They should be things that calm and settle you.
Some other examples of items in Column B might include stretching, yoga, meditation, or singing. You can look up any of these if you are curious about whether they may serve as aids in reducing your anxiety. Box breathing (you can search this term for more details) is also something that could be helpful. Some of our daily stress can also be managed by a focused use of technology, like less screen time or social media. Simple things like making duplicate keys or purchasing extra personal items we use at home and outside might also help. Sometimes having a duplicate tool or gadget in a second place you might use it, can be a stress-reducing strategy. Think about the spare $20 bill stashed in your wallet for emergency use only.
Here are a few other ideas for managing stress. Schedule a calming thought, poem, or prayer to automatically arrive on your phone every day. Develop a network of supportive friends (supportive means this is a person you can share concerns with, and they are non-critical), that are able to listen and take you seriously, often without rushing in to tell you what to do. Try getting up 15 minutes earlier (or using 15 minutes the night before to get things ready for a smooth morning), make time for a daily 5-15 minute walk in a pleasant setting, or practice breathing slowly for 5 minutes in the morning and evening. Have a nice conversation with a friend, loved one, or stranger at least once a day, take time to deliberately smile, do something kind to a random person, and avoid negative people.
Many people go to a counselor because of high levels of stress. When is it a good idea to see a therapist about anxiety? If your physical health is suffering (nausea, headaches, neck pain, tense or sore muscles), if you feel overwhelmed, if it is hard to manage your anger and other emotions, or if your work performance is affected by your anxiety. This is not a complete list, but it can provide some guidance about when to get someone on your team to help you manage your anxiety. A health professional, such as a therapist, can also assess you regarding whether medication might be helpful in managing anxiety. Keep in mind that you will be the person that makes the final decision about taking medication or not.
If you are uncomfortable with counseling, consider implementing several of the above recommendations. If they put you in a calmer, more tranquil state of mind, great! Mission accomplished. If you still feel uncomfortably anxious, perhaps a counselor can serve as a coach to help you get your anxiety under control. In closing, let me share the sage words of Karen Salmansohn, who says, “Count your blessings and recognize you’re doing the best you can – and that is all you can expect from yourself.” Be happy because you deserve it!
~ Dr. Terence P. Hannigan is a licensed psychologist in New York and New Jersey. Trained as a Counseling Psychologist, his focus is working with healthy people who want to use psychological principles to improve the quality of their lives. He is a semi-retired psychotherapist who works with both couples and individuals. His personal interests include cycling, travel, and gardening.