Feeling stressed or anxious is the absolute worst. And it's not uncommon. Most people suffer from chronically-elevated stress levels for a large part of their lives, and 29% of Americans will suffer from a clinical anxiety disorder in their lives. But with the right tools you can learn how to overcome stress.
“For many, anxiety is the manifestation of worry, concern, insecurity, fear, various emotions that become unregulated," Lara Pence, PsyD, Spartan’s Chief Mind Doc, wellness specialist, and clinical psychologist, says. "Understanding how anxiety works, the ways it shows up in your body, and how to manage it is key.”
Aside from the obvious unpleasantness, anxiety takes a physical toll. Stress and anxiety can manifest in a multitude of ways, from insomnia to over (or under) eating. And what's more, research shows the difference between a high- and low-stress life can equate to a twofold difference in your ability to recover from soreness, as well as injury.
There is no magic pill for curing anxiety. The good news is that it can be managed with a systematic wellness-first approach. Try these tips for how to overcome stress so you can get the most from your workouts, career, family life, and feel like a healthier, happier you overall.
How to Overcome Stress: 6 Pro Tips that Work for Nearly Everyone
1. Create Your User’s Manual
Not only does stress have a variety of causes, but it can also have a variety of presentations — both mental and physical — which show up differently for different people. The foundation of any good stress-fighting plan is to gain an understanding of your own stress response.
Take notes on what situations stress you out or calm you down, and on your own anxiety response. According to Pence, “you need to understand how anxiety is showing up in your body.”
Some people sweat and have a racing heart when they feel anxious. Others get low on energy. Mental reactions also vary; some people will feel a sense of dread, others will be angry. Some will throw themselves into their work, while others will procrastinate.
We’re sometimes slow to recognize when we feel anxious. This “user’s manual” will help you recognize when stress is starting to take hold, and what you can do to curtail it before it gets really bad.
2. Practice the Art of Saying 'No'
“A lot of people who struggle with anxiety have poor boundaries, take on too much, and have a difficult time saying no, so they get overwhelmed,” Pence says.
Work, social engagements, personal favors, and miscellaneous tasks can add up quickly and start to feel overwhelming. Start tracking how many things you say "yes" or "no" to. Start off with a goal of saying "no" to something at least once a week, and gradually increase that over time.
3. Meditation, Mindfulness, and Deep Breathing
You were probably expecting this one. It’s a cliche, because it works.
“The data behind using breath as a method to calm down our physiological response is overwhelming,” Pence says.
People who haven’t tried meditating before tend to overcomplicate it. Research shows just 20 minutes of meditation a day is enough to produce a moderate reduction in real and perceived stress — and it’s easy. Participants in one study only needed 45 minutes of training, and you can easily learn from books and YouTube videos.
The main hurdle, as usual, is to make sure you actually set aside time for it. Mark off a daily meditation time (or two) in your schedule.
Exercise produces endorphins that reduce pain and stress and temporarily elevate your mood. Studies overwhelmingly show that regular exercise reduces anxiety and depression.
However, Pence offers two cautions here.
"Some people who get very anxious may need to calm down a bit before exercising, using deep breathing or something like that,” she says. "Second, don’t use exercise as a form of creative avoidance. Being active isn’t going to solve anything, so don’t use it as an escape from actually solving your problems."
5. Solve Stress at the Source
There are two types of coping strategies. Passive coping is about dealing with anxiety when it happens. Active coping can best be described as putting into place proactive mechanisms to reduce and prevent anxiety. The ultimate form of active coping is to fix whatever issue causes your anxiety.
Financial issues? Cut expenses, start saving, and look for ways to earn more. Relationship trouble? Either fix the relationship or end it. Overwhelmed at work? Talk to your boss about it, and — if necessary — get a new job.
Bottom line: Head straight to the source of your anxiety and address it.
6. Reframe Your Perception
In one study, men who walked over a scary rope bridge became more attracted to a woman they met at the other end of the bridge. This phenomenon will be familiar to anyone who’s ever made out with their date at a horror movie.
“Your physiological response to anxiety and excitement is the same,” Pence says. "Distinguishing between the two is to some degree a matter of personal interpretation."
It is entirely possible to reframe your anxiety response as positive excitement. This is a good option when anxiety stems from something arguably positive — like having a lot of work or social commitments. When you feel your usual anxiety symptoms coming on (remember the owner’s manual?) tell yourself, Wow, I feel excited.
Editor's Note: This advice is not a substitute for professional psychiatric help. If you have severe anxiety that makes it difficult to function, please consult your healthcare provider.