3 practical ways to deal with stress, anxiety and low mood.

This blog follows on from the two previous blogs; 3 ways to fight stress, anxiety and low mood and 7 unhelpful ways of thinking.

In ‘3 ways’ I mentioned deep breathing techniques as a powerful way to shut down your sympathetic nervous system which produces all those negative anxiety symptoms and turn on your parasympathetic nervous system that operates the “rest-and-digest” response. This should always be the “first” response to stress, anxiety and low mood. Other methods mentioned in that blog such as exercise and cold showers are also very practical and very helpful.

There are however some more very helpful practical ways to deal with stress, anxiety and low mood.

1. Problems or Worries?
When anxiety strikes try writing down all those troubling thoughts and asking yourself: “Is this a problem or is it a worry?” or “What can I actually do about this?” The worry is a problem if you can do something about it. It is a worry if there isn’t anything you can do about it. If you can’t actually do anything then don’t worry about it. You can’t fix it and what will be will be. If you’re a Christian, trust that “we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” Romans 8:28 (NLT)

If the thing you are anxious about happens to be a problem then brain storm some solutions. What can you do about it? What is within your control and what is outside of your control.

2. Make a SMART Plan.
If you want to fight stress, anxiety and low mood you need to begin with a plan. SMART stands for…
Small: Start small. Do not try and change everything in your life all at once or all in a day. Choose something small and get to work on that.
Measureable: Once you have chosen something small to work at make sure you have a goal in mind. What do you want to happen? What will success look like?
Action: In the words of the Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Action requires us to do something. So do it!
Realistic: Do not expect the world or your life to change in a day. You will still have your stress, anxiety and low mood. Be realistic about what change you want to see and about what goals you set.
Timed: Be specific. I want to have done this or that by next week! Set dates and times to your goals.

3. Postpone your worries.
If you are being troubled by worries and you know they are worries and not problems (see point 1) then try setting aside some time for yourself on a daily basis to worry about those things for a few minutes (10-15 perhaps) and no longer. Then when you worry during the day you can tell yourself that you will worry about it later and then use that designated time to worry about it. When the 10 minutes are over, draw a line in the sand and get back to the things you can do.

In conclusion.
3 real practical ways to deal with stress, anxiety and low mood are to sort out your worries from your problems. You can work on your problems and bring about change but worries are just worries. They are thoughts that’s all. Make a small, measurable, action based, realistic plan that can be timed. If you cannot do anything and you are still worrying try setting aside some time each day to worry and postpone all your worrying thoughts until that designated time.

7 unhelpful ways of thinking.

In my previous post “3 ways to fight stress, anxiety and low mood” I mentioned that changing the way that you think is a powerful way to fight stress, anxiety and low mood.

All of us are constantly thinking even though we might not be always aware of our thoughts. Our thoughts affect our feelings. People who suffer from anxiety and low moods often have many negative automatic thoughts, that is, thoughts that happen automatically and are negative. Thoughts like; I am going to mess this up – create helplessness and anxiety. Another similar thought would be; nothing ever goes right for me – this way of thinking leads to depression. These thoughts are often generalisations and false generalisations at that.

There are seven unhelpful ways of thinking that lead to stress, anxiety and low mood. They are very common and affect us all.

There are two key words that are significant in this way unhelpful way of thinking; always and never. We might tell ourselves “I will never find a partner”, “I am always messing up”, “I will never get the job I want”, “I am always left out by my friends”. Always and never are never right and always wrong. All of us make mistakes on occasion and perhaps the words sometimes and someday might be better choices to prevent us feeling down on ourselves.

Do you often make a mountain out of a molehill? Your friend is late meeting up with you in town – “they must have had an accident”. Your relationship fails – “I will never find happiness again”. We all have set backs in life and often life does send us lemons but choose to make lemonade.

Ought/ Should/ Must thoughts.
Often we can put pressure on ourselves when there does not need to be any pressure. To apply this pressure we think in terms of Ought/ Should/ Must. Examples include “I ought to go to read my Bible for an hour a day”, “I must never be late” etc. Often these are good and valuable things but we should not aim too high or be unrealistic with ourselves. Try being on time or reading your Bible for just 10mins. Try and avoid Ought/ Should/ Must thinking.

Ignoring the positive.
All of us can be guilty of ignoring the positive. When someone complements you do you often think that they must have another motive? Often we can play down our own achievements and ignore the truly good things happening to us in life because we focus on the few negative things. Be men of blessing.

All or nothing.
Life can often be somewhere in the middle of wonderful and terrible. Peaks happen as do troughs. Sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down. All or nothing thinking denies the middle ground. You interpret events as being either wonderful or terrible when in reality they are somewhere in the middle.

Some of us have a tendency to blame ourselves when things go wrong. This is called personalising. You come home and your partner is annoyed. Do you blame yourself? What have you done? Perhaps you have not done anything but the kids have been playing up. Stop blaming yourself for things you have not done and do not assume everything is your fault.

Mind reading.
Sometimes we can be tempted into thinking we know what the people around us are thinking about us. Mind reading means we think that others think the worst of us. This is often not the case at all. If a friend ignores you, if might not be anything to do with you. They might just be having a bad day.

In summary.
These seven unhelpful ways of thinking are worth thinking about. All of us think in these unhelpful ways, as Frank Herbert says in Dune “Knowing where the trap is—that’s the first step in evading it.” The Apostle Paul asks us to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 ESV). If you start to notice that your thoughts are falling into these patterns of thinking try writing out your thoughts and categorising them. This can be an easy way to show yourself that you have fallen into an unhelpful way of thinking.

3 ways to fight stress, anxiety and low mood

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.

In summary.

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).