Coping Strategies for Anxiety and Stress
You do not need to suffer from anxiety and stress. Trauma doesn’t have to rule your day, leaving you feeling helpless and upset. You can move from the position of a passive observer to an active participator, taking control over the way you think and feel.
To introduce some crucial facts, I have chosen an extract from A User’s Guide to the Brain, by J.Ratey, a highly regarded neuroscientist and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
“The brain is not a computer that simply executes genetically predetermined programs. Nor is it a passive cabbage, victim to the environmental influences that bear upon it. Genes and environment interact to continually change the brain, from the time we are conceived to the day we die. And we, the owners, to the extent that our genes will allow it, can actively shape the way our brains develop throughout the course of our lives. We are not prisoners of our genes and our environment. Our own free will may be the strongest force directing the development of our brains, and therefore our lives. The adult brain is both plastic and resilient, and always eager to learn. Experiences, thoughts, actions, and emotions actually change the structure of our brains. By viewing the brain as a muscle that can be strengthen or weakened, we can exercise our ability to determine who we become. We can train our brains for health, vibrancy and longevity.”John J Ratey, MD
So, how can we train our brains to change the way we think and do things? Firstly, and most importantly, it is necessary to understand that we are all unique individuals with a unique answer to this question. There is no one formula that would give you comprehensive guidelines to manage your thinking, it does not exist. You are expert on you and that is a fact that no one cannot argue against. And although you may not feel like an expert now, the ability to understand yourself and use that ability for your benefit is there; it is an intrinsic part of your brain, waiting to be used in a positive and meaningful way.
I have put together a useful exercise to remind you of how you can start over again, using your own resources to develop coping strategies when life gets tough. You can use it or adapt it and make it unique. After all, you will know what makes sense to you and what does not.
1.) Focus on your breathing and stay with it for a while, noticing how your lungs fill with air and allowing them to expand fully. On the out-breath, focus on emptying the lungs to fully extend the breath further.
2.) Focus on your body, allow your muscles to let go of tension. It does not matter which muscle you focus on first, just let it happen – allow your attention to be directed by the feelings of your body, there is no need to rush or force anything.
3.) Now bring your conscious awareness to the space around you. Observe your surroundings; notice shapes, textures, colours. Look at objects with undivided attention. You are now fully present, you breathe deeply and calmly with relaxed feelings in your body and your attention is on a particular object, its form and colour.
4.) Remind yourself: past is gone, future has not yet happened. All you have is now.
5.) Focus on your breathing again.
6.) When you notice deep calm spreading into your mind and body, close your eyes. Imagine yourself looking calm, relaxed and happy. Create a big, bright image in your mind. Now feel into that image. Breathe with that image so you see it clearly in your mind. Imagination is a powerful tool. You are now using it to create an image of you being exactly as you want to be. Make it as detailed as you wish. See yourself confident, in control, calm, happy, re-energised.
7.) You know that something good has happened during this process. What has made the difference?
8.) If you can answer this, that’s great. You can now imagine the positive change taking place right in front of your own eyes. You are changing using your imagination. Your brain is learning a new thought pattern. Remember, the more you do this, the more your brain changes. For example, if you imagine yourself being confident, your brain reacts to that image. It is a powerful stimulation and new neuro pathways are being created, making you feel increasingly confident. Your own imagination is exercising your brain, the ability to feel good is right there. Exercise your brain as you would another muscle in your body. When you exercise muscles, you focus on a particular movement and you do it again and again. When you exercise a brain, the exercise is a thought that you focus on again and again.
9.) If you don’t know what exactly is making you feel different, better, that is fine, too. Just stick with the image and feel the difference anyway. The answers are not always clear to find. Positive changes can often happen without us being consciously aware of the process.
10.) Finally, return to focusing on your breathing and stay with it as long as it feels good to you. Repeat the exercise if you wish and do as many times as you like.
Just a few more notes:
- Notice that this coping strategy is about being aware of your mind as well as body. This is important. One interacts with the other. It often helps to focus on the body first as it will stop the thought process hijacking the present moment.
- Exercise will make you feel good. Deep breathing brings more oxygen into the body and releases serotonin, a powerful feel good neurotransmitter.
- Eat healthy food and allow enough time for food consumption and preparation. Food is a reward and our brains react powerfully to it, be aware how you use it.
- Get enough sleep; relax before going to bed, focus on something that relaxes your mind.
- Do things that make you happy, make time for these activities, even if you have to say sometimes ‘No’ to others. This is not selfish; this is looking after your own well-being. If you look after yourself, you have more resources to look after others.
- Focus on your positive relationships with other people. Humans need positive interaction to feel accepted and loved, we need to feel that we belong so keep in touch with people that you love and care for – it is good for your health.