How to deal with anxiety – by the experts who know

How to deal with anxiety? Chilled-out people don’t sweat the small stuff, they trick their minds into replacing worry with calmness. Here, the experts show how you can do it, too…

How to deal with anxiety in this day and age? We are all prone to anxiety, it’s almost hard-wired into us. But there are ways to recognise anxiety symptoms in order to ready yourself to alleviate stress.

‘The reality is that everyone is affected by stress, we just differ in how we respond,’ says Dr Julian Simmons, a research fellow at The University of Melbourne’s School of Psychological Sciences. 
According to neuroscientist Daniel J Levitin, ‘Stress has a genetic basis, beginning in childhood. It’s why some preschool children have calmer temperaments than others. But fear not, your stress level isn’t set in Grade 1, there are things we can do as adults to reduce stress by controlling the way we deal with it.’

1. When you feel… Overwhelmed

You have 360 unread emails, you’re late for a work meeting and your best friend needs some crisis support. Where to start?


De-stress strategy: Prioritising
‘It sounds head-flappingly obvious to tell you to prioritise the important tasks, but most people simply don’t approach their days that systematically,’ explains Levitin, who is the author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. ‘Write down your to-do list – even the most trivial things – and rearrange it in order of importance. That way, the vital tasks will be done early on and you’re not going to stress if, by the end of the day, you haven’t done something that’s relatively unimportant.’

2. When you feel… Frustrated

You’ve cancelled your meetings, put aside your jobs for the day and stayed at home for the plumber, who then doesn’t show up. Pissed off is an understatement.


De-stress strategy: Press pause

‘When you’re feeling frustrated, it’s important to change your thought cycle, which is likely to be negative and spiralling down,’ explains psychologist Merryn Snare. ‘Find a quiet place and say “Stop” – aloud if you can. Imagine a stop sign and put your hand up in a stop signal. This multi-sensory approach interrupts your thought pattern. Once you’re back on track, think outside your own frustration. What are some of the reasons the plumber didn’t show?’ Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer adds, ‘Ease your frustration by using the time you’re waiting to get household tasks done, so you still have a sense of completing things, even though your plans have been derailed.’

3. When you feel… Defeated

You’ve made an awful faux pas in front of your boss and it keeps replaying over and over again in your mind. It’s getting to the point where it’s keeping you up at night.

De-stress strategy: Distraction

‘Neurological research suggests there are two types of people: ruminators and distractors,’ explains Levitin. ‘Ruminators turn everything over in their heads: “I wish I’d done this”, “I wish I’d said that, then this wouldn’t have happened”, whereas distractors get engaged in other things and then are able to move on. A certain amount of rumination is necessary for self-refection but, after a point, it just makes you feel bad. The best thing is to get distracted by immersing yourself in another activity – read a good book, go for a walk. Exercise is perfect because it makes you focus on something strategic, but it also oxygenates the blood, increases your mental resilience and decreases the stress hormone cortisol, which feeds the negative cycle.’

4. 
When you feel… Offended
You spent half your weekend doing yet another favour for a friend and she didn’t even say thank you. You’re fuming.


De-stress strategy: Get it out

‘Write down all the uncensored things you would like to say to your friend,’ suggests Brewer. ‘Now rip it up while imagining the release of all the emotions with every tear. Give it some time, then rewrite it without the high emotion. Preface it with something like, “I feel awkward saying this, but I value our friendship, so I think it’s important we can have these conversations.” Then visualise a conversation with you speaking calmly and your friend being open to your views. If you still feel the need to say something, you’re prepared.’

5. When you feel… Anxious

You’ve left your phone at home, you’re late for work and it’s going to throw your whole schedule off track. You’re suddenly on edge.

De-stress strategy: Problem-solve
‘You need to think on your feet about how to adapt in order to best achieve what you need to do within these new constraints,’ says Brewer. She adds that unruffled types switch into problem-solving mode instead of blind panic when they’re hit with an annoyance. ‘Consider how you’ll feel about it the next day or the following week. In the overall scheme of things, how much will you even remember tomorrow?’

And breathe… With these 5 ways to de-stress

1. Conduct a pre-mortem. ‘Predict all the things that could possibly go wrong and deal with them ahead of time,’ says Levitin. ‘Anybody who’s ever hidden their house keys under a plant pot has done a pre-mortem. It’s much less stressful dealing with a disaster before it happens, rather than during or after.’


2. Learn to breathe mindfully. Brewer says, ‘Create a habit of being aware of your breathing in certain situations (in traffic, on the bus) and practise regulating your breath.’

3. Daydream for 15 minutes every three hours. Levitin explains, ‘Many of us fight this mode because we feel the need to be productive every minute of the day, but relaxed mind-wandering– letting thoughts flow without your control – is essential for resetting focus and concentration.’

4. Switch off devices. ‘Avoid checking Facebook or watching YouTube clips to relax,’ says Levitin. ‘They bring a whole manner of other stresses, plus it is associative, because you’re using the same devices you check your work email or pay your bills on. Instead, sit in a quiet spot, look at the view or read a novel.’

5. Have a trusted person to vent to. Brewer suggests: ‘Someone who will give you perspective, who might challenge you on your stance and help you let go of the issue.’

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