According to the American Psychological Association [i], 12% of millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) have an officially diagnosed anxiety disorder – that is double the percentage of their parents.
As a millennial myself I am not removed from this. I have struggled with anxiety and low moods for the past 13 years. Stress, anxiety and low mood however should not be seen as giants in and of themselves but rather broken down into physical feelings, thoughts and behaviour. If they are to be fought against, you need to know what you are fighting.
There are three ways to fight stress, anxiety and low mood:
1. Change your physical feelings;
2. Change your thoughts; and
3. Change your behaviour.
Each of us has feelings, thoughts and behaviours that play off one another and affect one another. If you decide to change your behaviour or your thoughts, you can change your feelings.
These three ways are not easy nor do they come naturally.
Change your physical feelings.
The first of the three ways is perhaps at first the most impossible. If you are in ‘stressed’ or ‘anxious’ mode, you will be having a number of physical symptoms including: tense and aching muscles, sweating, nauseous, heart palpitations, dizziness etc. These physical feelings have been caused by your body ordering a “fight or flight” response to an external trigger. Your whole body is flooded with adrenaline which causes these physical feelings. Your sympathetic nervous system is active and you are primed. In such a state how are you expected to change your physical feelings? How can you stop dizziness or heart palpitations?
The answer is deep breathing. Slow deep breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system that operates the “rest-and-digest” response. Try breathing in for two seconds, holding your breath for two then breathing out for four. It is the breathing out that matters. Repeat this cycle for a few minutes and notice your body relaxing.
Change your thoughts.
The way we interpret situations affects how we perceive what is happening. The Stoic Epictetus said “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” One way to fight stress, anxiety and low mood is to re-evaluate our judgements about the situations we are facing. Perhaps it is time to think about your unhealthy thinking patterns. Do you; over-generalise; personalise everything, always jump to negative conclusions; ignore the positive; think in terms of all and nothing? We all do these things some of the time but these ways of thinking can cause us to experience stress, anxiety and low mood. Be bold enough to think in different ways and re-write the narrative.
Change your behaviour.
One of the best ways to fight stress, anxiety and low mood is to change your behaviour. If someone invites you out when you are feeling low, the temptation is to say no thanks and stay in. Staying in won’t change the way you are feeling but going out might. Try saying yes. You might actually enjoy yourself and when you get back in you might feel a bit more like your old self. Try walking or running. Exercise is a great way to boost endorphins, the feel-good chemical in your brain. Help others. Altruism or selfless actions towards others also has a positive influence over your own mental state as you focus on other people for their own sake rather than focusing on yourself.
The fight against stress, anxiety and low mood is a long war of attrition. The first assaults we make however revolve around us deciding to change our physical feelings through deep breathing, changing the way we think about the world around us and changing our behaviour. I have found the best way to limit my own stress, anxiety and low mood is a 30min run every other day and a daily cold shower (more on that another time).