If COVID-19 taught us anything, maybe it’s that some things are out of our control. Life is going to throw us curveballs — from unexpected bills to unwanted diagnoses to delays to global pandemics — no matter how much yoga or deep breathing we practice.
It’s not the absence of these stressors that defines our wellbeing; it’s how we are able to respond to them that makes us mentally strong, psychologists say.
Dr. Meredith Coles, professor of psychology and director of the Binghamton Anxiety Clinic at Binghamton University, pointed out that stress (and the anxiety it causes) helps us survive and thrive: “It motivates us to ... get out of the way of a speeding car.”
But our bodies aren’t designed to constantly be under that pressure. And we have to learn healthy ways to deal with the stressors that don’t go away, adds Dr. Seth J. Gillihan, psychologist in private practice in Haverford, Pennsylvania. “Key is being able to process the stress, so it's not building to a breaking point.”
When the body registers a situation as stressful, the body prepares for physical danger (the “fight or flight” response). The heart pumps faster to send more blood to your muscles, your pupils dilate so you can see better, and you become hyper-vigilant.
The body is really good at returning to a baseline, non-fight-or-flight state once your brain registers that the threat has passed, explained Dr. Margaret Seide, a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and on faculty at New York University. The sticky point is getting the brain to register that that stressor is no longer a threat.
“If I am reliving or worrying about something, I can be going through the same biological stress response over and over,” she said. The response might be lower grade later on than when you first opened that bill or lashed out at your partner, but over time the persistent effects of stress (even if they are minor) can tax the body greatly. They’ve been linked to higher risk of chronic heart problems, digestive disorders, sleep problems, mood disorders and cognitive decline.
So, how do you not let short-term stress turn into the problematic, long-term kind you can’t let go of? You have to be able to shift your thinking. It can feel like your worries are out of your control, but you have the power to shift your thoughts, Seide said, “even the stressful and anxiety-provoking ones.”
Here’s how to do it:
1. Get to know your stress response
We all respond to stress in different ways, particularly that long-term festering stress associated with worry. Pay attention to how stress affects you. Maybe it’s feeling more irritable, maybe it’s a headache or stomach cramps, or maybe it’s feeling sad. “A lot of the times it’s subtle,” said Gillihan, who is also the author of “The CBT Deck,” a book about techniques to train your brain to better cope with stress.
To get to know your stress response, check in with yourself a few times throughout the day: What’s my stress level? Do I need anything?
2. As soon as you notice things heating up, hit pause
When you’re in that moment when you can feel the blood rushing to your head and your thoughts swirling toward a doom-and-gloom place, hit pause. Most of the stressors we encounter in our everyday lives (that bill, that newscast, that argument) are not immediate threats to our safety, Seide said. Reminding yourself that you are safe can help get back to that baseline, non-alarmed state, and deal with whatever the problem is from a calmer starting point.
Do it by noticing your surroundings. Take inventory of the furniture in the room. Count the leaves on a plant. Pay attention to what colors you see.
It’s been said over and over again because it works. Taking a deep breath (or a few) is the most immediate way you can start to quiet the alarm bells stress is setting off in your head and body, Gillihan said. Slow, thoughtful breathing signals to the nervous system it can ease up on that stress response, he explained. “Keep it really simple. Breathe in. Breathe out.”
4. Stay objective
Here’s the part where you have to start thinking about whatever set off your stress alarm bell to begin with. Keep your attention on what the problem is and what you’re going to do about it. Don’t let your thoughts run off and panic about how this problem is going to create a dozen other ones, Coles said.
You get a flat tire. Recognize it’s going to take a few hours to get it fixed. Make a plan to get it fixed. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to get all the things done you had planned on doing today, Coles said. “Flat tires — and other unexpected stressors — are part of life.”
Question the stories you’re telling yourself, Gillihan said. Are you being objective? “In times of high stress we might see danger everywhere, or see ourselves as weak and overwhelmed,” he said.
5. Make a plan
If the stressor is not a flat tire and requires a little more thinking to figure out how to address it, make a plan to figure it out. Put some time on your calendar to call the hospital about the bill that came through. Make a plan about when you’ll study for that big exam. Figure out what you need to do to constructively deal with the stressor and decide when you’ll do that, Seide said.
6. Then move your thoughts to something positive
If you’re not in that time and place where you’re constructively working through a problem — let’s call these nonconstructive thoughts “worries” — it’s time to shift your thinking, Seide said. “Change the channel in your mind.”
Focus on affirmative thoughts. Think of song lyrics. Count backwards from 100. Listen to a podcast (or a bedtime story if the worries are coming before sleep). Distract yourself, Seide said.
7. Practice mental health maintenance, too
Self-care practices (all the things you do to promote good health) — like getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, taking time to manage chronic conditions, and connecting with friends and family — all help keep your baseline in an optimal starting place for when stressors do show up. Think of it as building up your body’s defenses for the unexpected attacks, Seide said.
But those defenses are not going to be very strong if you don’t keep up with them regularly, she said: “It’s not going to work if you wait until you’re having the worst day ever and then try pulling out a candle or dusting off your journal.”