Staying calm in turbulent times

There are several ways to manage anxiety on your own, but it's important to recognize when to get professional help.

Published: April, 2017

Nowadays, simply tuning in to the daily news is likely to be stressful. Add on the stresses of daily life — such as handling work demands or adjusting to retirement, dealing with family issues, coping with illness, or caregiving — and you may begin to greet each day with apprehension and worry. In other words, you can become anxious.

"Some degree of anxiety is normal and even necessary," says Dr. Ann Epstein, a psychiatrist at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance and medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Coping with Anxiety and Stress. "Anxiety signals us that something is awry or might need our attention. However, you don't want the response to become exaggerated or to dominate your life," she says. Good coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety can help you stay healthy during turbulent times.

The difference between everyday anxiety and anxiety disorders

Everyday anxiety

Anxiety disorder

You worry about your retirement fund being depleted.

You are obsessed about your finances to the point where these thoughts interfere with daily life.

You sometimes get nervous before a big event.

You have panic attacks, where you break out in a sweat, shake, and have heart palpitations. You live in constant fear of another panic attack.

You're afraid of large dogs because one bit you when you were a child.

You're terrified of something that doesn't pose a threat to you, like the color red, and do everything you can to avoid it.

You sometimes feel awkward at social gatherings.

You avoid social situations out of fear that people will laugh at or judge you.

Coping with anxiety

You may want to begin by considering whether your anxiety is normal or whether you have an anxiety disorder — defined as symptoms that have plagued you for at least six months. (See "The difference between everyday anxiety and anxiety disorders" for some examples.) If your anxiety has interfered with your daily life for a while, it's time to see a mental health professional who can draw from many types of "talk" therapy and drugs to help you.

If you're confident that your anxiety is of the everyday variety, you might get some relief by doing the following:

Talk about it. Explaining your concerns to your friends and family can help you put them in perspective. A discussion with your doctor can identify any stress-induced health issues, like high blood pressure or poor sleep, that you may have developed and help you find ways to treat them.

Take care of yourself. Eat healthy, tasty meals. Pursue your favorite activities, be they watching a good movie or TV series, reading a new novel, visiting a museum, gardening, walking the dog, or playing with grandchildren. Becoming immersed in pleasurable activities can dispel anxiety, at least temporarily.

Get regular exercise. Physical activity affects the nervous system in ways that reduce stress. Just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood. Yoga and tai chi can also relax your body and mind.

Keep a list. Whenever a worry or fear begins to dominate your thoughts, write it down in as much detail as you can. Many people find that just articulating their cares provides some relief.

Use calming techniques. Learning techniques to counter stress can improve your mood, reduce your health risks, and enhance your appreciation of daily life. (See "4 ways to achieve the relaxation response.") Many Y's and health centers offer stress-reduction programs, which may include instruction in mindfulness, relaxation, yoga, or tai chi. There are numerous books, CDs, DVDs, and smartphone apps that can guide you in practicing these techniques.

4 ways to achieve the relaxation response

The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. A number of physiological changes occur during the relaxation response. Heartbeat and breathing slow down, the body uses less oxygen, and blood flows more easily through the circulatory system. Blood lactate levels, which some researchers believe are linked with anxiety attacks, decline markedly.

The relaxation response can be elicited by a variety of techniques and exercises, including a two-step technique, deep breathing, visualization, and mindfulness meditation.

Relaxation techniques are easy to learn. Whichever technique you choose, it's a good idea to carve out 10 to 20 minutes, twice a day, to practice it.

1. The two-step technique

Try these two steps anytime you feel stressed in order to regain a sense of calm and peace.

  • Step 1. Choose a calming focus. Good examples are your breath, a sound ("om"), a short prayer, or a positive word (such as "relax" or "peace") or phrase ("breathing in calm, breathing out tension"). Repeat this aloud or silently as you inhale or exhale.
  • Step 2. Let go and relax. Don't worry about how you're doing. When you notice your mind has wandered, simply take a deep breath or say to yourself "thinking, thinking" and gently return your attention to your focus.

2. Deep breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique that induces relaxation, slows the heartbeat, and lowers or stabilizes blood pressure. To practice this technique, begin by finding a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down. Start by observing your breath. First take a normal breath, followed by a slow, deep breath. The air coming in through your nose should feel as though it moves downward into your lower belly. Let your abdomen expand fully. Then exhale slowly. Alternate normal and deep breaths several times. Put one hand on your abdomen, just below your navel. Feel your hand rise about an inch each time you inhale and fall about an inch each time you exhale. Your chest will rise slightly, too, in concert with your abdomen. Remember to relax your belly so that each inhalation expands it fully.

Try to practice this breathing technique for 15 to 20 minutes every day. You might also try shorter bouts lasting a few minutes when anxiety begins to build to see if this feels calming.

3. Visualization

Visualization, or guided imagery, that mentally conjures soothing scenes can also relax and calm you. Find a quiet place to sit and get comfortable. Clear your mind while taking deep, even breaths for several minutes, and then envision images you find relaxing. The images you choose — whether places or experiences — break the chain of everyday thought. Put yourself into the imaginary setting by asking yourself what you might see, hear, smell, and feel. If stressful thoughts intrude, observe them objectively, and then refocus on the image.

4. Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing attention on what is happening in the present and accepting it without judgment. And that — many physicians and therapists believe — can be a powerful therapeutic tool. Mindfulness is often learned through meditation, a systematic method of regulating your attention by focusing on your breathing, a phrase, or an image.

Scientists have discovered the benefits of using mindfulness meditation techniques to help relieve stress, treat heart disease, and alleviate other conditions such as high blood pressure, chronic pain, sleep problems, and gastrointestinal difficulties. Therapists have turned to mindfulness meditation to treat depression and anxiety disorders, particularly generalized anxiety, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

During mindfulness meditation, you acknowledge distracting thoughts and sensations that may occur. Recognizing and accepting your feelings and thoughts opens the door to examining how they interact. Once you understand that, you can change negative patterns.

Mindfulness offers other benefits, as well. One goal is to enhance your pleasure in simple everyday experiences — soaking in natural beauty or enjoying a deliciously ripe peach, perhaps. By slowing down experiences and learning to focus on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past.

Image: PeopleImages/Getty Images

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