There are signs that stress and anxiety are at dangerously high levels for many Americans. We now know that mind and body are one. One important application of this knowledge is the mandate to keep personal stress and anxiety at manageable levels so as to keep our body’s immune systems operating at optimal levels. The reader may rightly point out that it’s a scary world out there and some anxiety and stress indicate good reality testing. Correct you are, dear reader. Some stress is actually helpful as a way to focus attention and action. Some anxiety can provide needed motivation to reduce risk by, for example, locking doors, wearing seatbelts, and keeping smoke detectors in working order.
First, let me do a common sense distinction between stress and anxiety. Let’s define stress as coming from external sources like relationships, work, current events, holiday seasons, and so on. Let’s see anxiety as your reaction to both external events and to internal thoughts and feelings. This is not a perfect distinction, but it may be helpful for discussion.
The world-especially our fast-paced and information-rich century-manufactures stress. Noise, crowds, rude people, disappointing family members, personal failures, difficult bosses, and looming threats of local and worldwide violence are all potential sources of stress. There are also situations of success, accomplishment, exciting travel, and happy relationships that despite their positive nature demand change and adaptation and therefore are stressful despite being desirable. In other words, stressful events are inescapable. Our only choice is purposeful action to manage life to keep stress at levels that don’t damage health and feelings of self efficacy.
What’s the best strategy to manage stress?
It’s mindfulness. Mindfulness means developing the discipline of mind to pay attention to what you are doing-one thing at a time. How hard can that be? In fact, for most people mindfulness is quite difficult to master. For example, as I reach for a glass so that I can have a glass of water, I think only of reaching for the glass and not whether the water I will choose will have ice, be still or bubbly, or from the tap. As I speak on the phone, I listen to the other’s voice for feelings and meaning without planning my own response or multitasking with TV or email.
Mindfulness works to manage stress because it focuses attention in ways that give us optimal resilience and problem solving. To be mindful also allows us to monitor our own feelings and physical reactions to situations. When we are in touch with ourselves we can make better decisions about how to spend time, with whom to relate, and when to act, rest, or play. Mindful people focus attention in a way that acts like a gate to stress-keeping it at a healthy level.
Mindfulness is also a good buffer against anxiety. A lot-not all-of anxiety comes from re-hashing the past and dreading the future. A laser-like focus on the present reduces fears and regrets about things that can’t be changed or accurately anticipated.
Because mind and body are one, deep breathing and regular exercise are other good strategies to reduce anxiety. In fact, many people find that breathing alone is a very powerful strategy in anxiety reduction. Meditation is often combined with controlled breathing as a way to give ourselves revitalizing experiences.
What we say to ourselves about situations is often what causes the anxiety. Defeatist or pessimistic self-talk invites anxiety. If, on the other hand, our self talk is coping, that is we face stressful situations by saying something like, “I can do this, I’ve done harder things before, I can keep trying until I get it,” we feel less anxious. This is a powerful realization. Our way of thinking about situations defines them as either as anxiety-provoking or as simply challenging or new.
Of course, some events are truly scary-e.g., physical trauma, loss of a loved one, combat, or financial reversals. Even in these situations, however, we know that the way people “process” the events is most often the best predictor of their abilities to cope and become or stay healthy. Positive attitudes, good friends, and a commitment to a cause larger than us are all potent strategies to keep anxiety low.
Humans have great but not unlimited capacity to handle stress. Seek help if your life is being diminished by fears and concerns. There are many effective strategies available that allow us to regain a sense of control over our lives. This is good for us and good for the people we love. We can’t stop the stress, but we can learn to thrive.
Professor Jane Close Conoley is Dean of the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California Santa Barbara.