The first step in managing stress is to understand it. Although the terms stress, worry, and anxiety are used interchangeably by many people, they do have differences.
Stress involves reacting mentally and physically to a specific experience in your daily life, such as moving away from home, final exams, or lack of money to pay bills that month. After taking action or the stress passes, a normal mood returns. Even positive events such as winning an award or getting married can be temporarily stressful. It is important to recognize that not all stress is bad. A good type of stress, called eustress, keeps people motivated and excited about life. It can enhance an individual's performance in studying for an academic exam, or competing in an athletic event, or dealing with a difficult interpersonal situation.
Worry is a form of thinking involving apprehensive expectations. It can be constructive when it leads to a positive solution, but it can become toxic when it paralyzes an individual. Key components of excessive worry are that it is non-productive and repetitive. Individuals may think about a problem over and over again as though running in place on a treadmill, going nowhere, but may never jump off the treadmill to resolve the problem.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is what happens when stress continues without the stressor. In the brain, it is most closely related to fear and feelings of impending doom. It tends to be chronic involving excessive worrying about vague fears such as harm to loved ones, being unsuccessful in life, or fear of the future. Individuals may also worry about many small things that are not worth worrying about. If it does not go away, it may become chronic. Stress is not a psychiatric condition, but when pervasive stress and worry continue for over 6 months, it can become an anxiety disorder.
The anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in America. In any given year, anxiety affects about 18.1 percent of U.S. adults, and many more U.S. adults will experience it across their lifespan. New and better ways to handle both stress and worry before they become long-term problems are essential. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has succinct and helpful publications on the five major types of anxiety disorders. The Stress Recess site below has an excellent interactive program about stress and anxiety.
Stress affects each of us differently. Below are some common responses to stress and anxiety.
Stress management is a personal journey. What works for one person may not work for another. As you try different approaches, it is important to allow your body and mind to tell you what is working for you.
For brief periods of stress, you may find the following helpful in reducing stress: exercising; listening to relaxing music; taking a warm bath or shower; doing hobbies and creative projects; managing your time better; surrounding yourself with supportive family and friends; getting your feelings out; laughing; and focusing on the positive.
Over time you may find you need additional tension reducing exercises. These are the state-of-the- art therapeutic approaches for reducing both stress and anxiety. They can be helpful when performed on a daily basis for a few minutes, as well as utilized in the middle of a stressful experience. They can lead your body and mind to calm down. They may also lead you to be less reactive to stress within a few weeks. (See the Virtual Relaxation Room on this site for downloadable exercises for most of these strategies).
These approaches are very helpful for changing the automatic and distorted negative thinking that can lead to long-term worry and anxiety. (See the Virtual Relaxation Room on this site for self-compassion exercises and the Stress Recess resources below for an explanation of the role of cognitions and beliefs in causing anxiety)
If you want to learn more about stress and anxiety management skills, you may find additional information at the following links:
If you are struggling with stress, worrying, or anxiety and need more than the exercises above, help is available. Please contact Counseling Services at (775) 784-4648 to schedule a counseling appointment.