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.
According to Lara Pence, PsyD and Spartan’s Chief Mind Doctor, wellness specialist and clinical psychologist, “For many, anxiety is the manifestation of worry, concern, insecurity, fear, various emotions that become unregulated. 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 (even actual pills are hit or miss), the good news is that it can be managed with a systematic wellness-first approach. Here's what Dr. Pence suggests to mitigate anxiety. 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
Create Your User’s Manual
Not only does stress have a variety of causes, it can also have a variety of presentations, both mental and physical, which shows up differently for 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 Dr. 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, 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.
Practice The Art of Saying No
“A lot of people who struggle with anxiety have poor boundaries, take on too much, have a difficult time saying no, and they get overwhelmed,” says Dr. Pence.
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.
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,” says Dr. Pence.
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.
However, Dr. Pence offers two cautions here. First, “some people who get very anxious may need to calm down a bit before exercising, using deep breathing or something like that.” 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,” she says.
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 pro-active 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.
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,” Dr. 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.
The Bottom Line: How to Overcome Stress
Overcoming anxiety requires self-knowledge. Once you have that, take a basic three-pronged approach: prevent anxiety before it happens, develop ways of reducing it when it does strike, and learn to re-interpret some anxieties as positives.
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.