(Paula Teggelove's next online short course on Managing Stress and Anxiety begins on August 3)
From this Thursday, as Victorians advance further into lockdown conditions, we will all have to wear face masks when we venture from home. It’s important that we don’t try, at the same time, to mask what we are feeling and experiencing as a result of Covid 19 and efforts to contain it.
Many have lost their jobs or are working from home, juggling family and work commitments and possibly dealing with significant financial loss. It’s not surprising that we might be experiencing stress and anxiety as we struggle to manage feelings and reactions to the changes in our lives.
Stress and anxiety produce similar symptoms but there are key differences. Stress is a reaction to situations where we feel under pressure and it normally resolves or reduces once that situation has passed. Anxiety is a normal human emotion which we all feel from time to time, but it can develop into a mental health condition, characterised by intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear that is out of proportion with reality.
In times of adversity, stress and anxiety naturally increase. It is important not to expect that we can suddenly or quickly eliminate these reactions; they are normal human reactions to extraordinary circumstances. But it is possible to manage stress and anxiety and doing so will help people to feel calmer and more in control and better able to get on with their daily lives.
The signs and symptoms of both stress and anxiety will vary from person to person but fall into three categories. There are numerous physical changes that occur such as: increased heart rate, shortness of breath, feeling tense or wound up, feeling sick in the stomach, experiencing difficulties in attention, memory and motivation. Our thinking changes; people typically report excessive worry, racing thoughts, obsessive thinking and/or catastrophising. And our behaviour will frequently be affected; we might start avoiding certain things or, put another way, procrastinate. Or we might become more withdrawn or irritable, which can put our relationships under strain.
An important part of managing stress and anxiety is to break down and focus on each of the three components: the physical, the thinking and the behavioural.
Stress and anxiety are not just all in the mind. The physical changes are very real. The part of the nervous system that regulates the bodily system, the autonomic nervous system, is activated in times of stress and everything begins to work in overdrive, causing the physical changes described above.
Strategies to manage these changes involve techniques that help slow down the inner workings of our bodies. Simple breathing techniques are a good place to start. Give yourself a few minutes to sit still, close your eyes and focus on your breathing, taking steady deep breaths. Focus on filling your lungs with air (just to a comfortable stage), and then expelling all of the breath. It doesn’t matter if you breathe through your nose of mouth. Whatever feels most comfortable is best. What you are looking for is a nice steady, rhythmic breath that will help slow down your breathing and, in turn, help calm other physical changes.
Managing our thought processes can seem daunting. The irrational thoughts that occur during stress and anxiety make us more irrational (naturally). What seems pretty straight forward in other times can seem insurmountable in times of adversity. However, if we start to identify what is going on in our thoughts, to recognise the changes, then we can work on changing them.
It is sometimes helpful to pause and write down your thoughts. Try to do so without analysing them. Just list them as they come to mind. Then read through the list. Are these thoughts overly negative? Are they excessively worried? Are the thoughts obsessive; going over and over the same ground? Pick out one thought that you’d like to change and try to objectively ask yourself whether it is rational. Think about the evidence both for and against and ask yourself whether there is a more realistic thought. Almost always, there will be. Managing thought processes can be incredibly challenging but also very powerful and empowering. There are many more strategies to learn and it is worth investigating them.
Avoidance is one of the most common behavioural changes that accompany stress and anxiety. Avoidance is a way of reducing our anxiety and it works. But only in the short term. In reality it usually means that we are putting off things that need to be done.
In the longer term the anxiety will return, often creating additional stress. If you find that you are avoiding something, try to take small steps to get back to the task. Other unhelpful behavioural changes can be irritability and taking our frustrations out on others, potentially damaging our relationships. If you identify this type of behaviour, try to stop and assess where it is coming from. Is it appropriate? Talking about it frequently helps, particularly in relationships. If you think you are doing this excessively, you might want to consider some professional counselling; relationships are important to wellbeing and we need to look after them as much as possible.
As we begin to take these small steps to manage stress and anxiety, we can start to put them all together, managing physical symptoms, our thoughts and behaviours simultaneously.
Times of adversity make many of us realise how quickly things can change and how vulnerable we are to stress and anxiety. But taking steps to help ourselves can make important changes. Life has a way of throwing curve balls at us, and being able to manage stress and anxiety is a useful lifelong skill.