From the Magazine

4 Ways to Deal With Anxiety in Common Stressful Situations

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From anxiety-provoking deadlines to nonstop multitasking, we’re all too familiar with feeling stressed. But you may be surprised to learn that distress (the chronic, harmful form of stress) has a “good twin” called eustress. This short-term, positive stress excites and motivates us, sharpening our focus and helping us achieve our goals. The best part: We have the power to choose which of these two paths we travel.

“New science reveals that simply changing how we think can alter our physical and psychological responses to moments of stress,” says Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Upside of Stress ($12.53, Amazon). A recent study at the University of Freiberg in Germany found that participants who were coached to view public speaking through the lens of good stress displayed significantly higher levels of positive social behavior, such as trust and openness, than their negative-thinking counterparts. 

“Cardiovascularly speaking, stress produces the same physical reaction as moments of joy and courage,” McGonigal adds. “So by reframing our outlook, we can teach our brain to expect a good feeling instead of a bad feeling when we experience stress.”

In fact, more and more, women are leveraging good stress to their benefit: Just look at health trends like intermittent fasting or interval training, which both stress the body in short, powerful ways. “A little good stress can boost our brainpower and our activation of autophagy — our body’s own cellular cleanup and rejuvenation,” says Naomi Whittel, author of Glow15 ($10, Amazon). The physical and emotional benefits, she says, include improving sleep, reducing pain, and boosting immunity, as well as helping us meet challenges, increasing joy, and even extending life expectancy. Here, experts reveal the mental tricks and tips that transform stress into a feel-good superpower!

The Stress: Everything is going wrong.

After hitting traffic, spilling your coffee and accidentally erasing a file, you feel anxious — and it’s only 9:30 a.m. “For 90 seconds after a stressor presents itself, brain chemicals surge, making it hard to tap into the rational left hemisphere,” says Chris Peterson, MD, an expert in the neuropsychology of mindfulness. “If lots of things go wrong, we get stuck in a ‘fight or flight’ state.”

As soon as you feel a surge of stress, Dr. Peterson advises taking eight deep breaths to lower your heart rate and engage your logical parasympathetic nervous system, which interrupts the brain’s “fight or flight” response. “Then ask yourself, ‘What’s really going on? Are these negative thoughts true?’” he advises. This quick “analytical meditation” halts anxiety-producing thoughts while training our brain to better handle future stressors.

The Stress: You hit a major setback.

You felt great during your last job interview, but they hired another candidate and now you’re worried you’ll never land anything. “Negativity builds the most developed neural pathways in the brain as a way to protect us from danger,” says Loretta Breuning, PhD, author of Tame Your Anxiety. Left unresolved, these pathways strengthen so even small setbacks cause major stress.

After experiencing a disappointment, close your eyes and imagine yourself a year from now — happy, successful, and exactly where you’d like to be, suggests Angie Morgan, co-author of Spark: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success ($7.18, Amazon). Conjuring a clear, positive future view reminds us that our current pain is only temporary, motivates us to keep moving toward our goals and helps forge positive neural pathways in the brain that aid us in dealing with setbacks.

The Stress: You can’t stop worrying.

Your doctor called and asked you to come in to review your medical tests. Terrified, it’s all you can think about. “When we’re stressed, we’re spitting out a lot of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which hyper-focuses our attention on sources of stress,” says Harvard University’s Shelley Carson, PhD, “This makes it hard to break out of a constricted tunnel vision.”

“Walking in nature is a dual-prong approach to peace,” says Carson. “When you experience bad stress, you become hyper-focused, but in nature, it’s 360 degrees of stimuli that ‘stresses’ your senses in a good way and defocuses your attention on your problem.” The other benefit: Looking at beauty releases feel-good neurotransmitters and triggers positive emotions — even gazing at pictures of nature or eyeing houseplants can have a feel-good effect!

The Stress: Other people are angry at you.

You love volunteering for your local library, but ever since you sided with one committee member’s idea for the upcoming fund-raiser, the opposing ladies seem to be giving you the cold shoulder. Now you’re feeling sick to your stomach as you weave stories about all the nasty things they may be saying about you behind your back. And we all do it! A University of Toronto study found that our evolved brain network turns everything we experience into a narrative that, when left unchecked, can challenge our sense of identity and exacerbate stress. The good news? You are in charge of your own story.

Whenever your mind begins weaving a tale that heightens anxiety, Morgan suggests reframing the stressor using narrative intelligence, or our ability to adapt to the world using stories. “Start by asking, ‘Am I the hero of my story?’” she advises. Then change your internal plot-line to one that sparks joy — in this case, instead of worrying that the other “characters” think you’re a bad guy, remind yourself you love helping your community. “This allows us to choose how we experience life and swaps stress for a happy ending.”

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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