Stress and anxiety can often go hand in hand and are really common to experience. Together they can make us feel worried, nervous or fearful, we might feel tense, our hearts race a little more, our breathing becomes shallow. The feelings aren’t particularly pleasant, it can be quite uncomfortable and can complicate our ability to process everything else.
It’s like a little grey cloud that sweeps over the brain reducing our ability to focus and remain calm. And usually, they strike at the most inconvenient times - like right before meeting our partner’s parents, competing in a race, or giving a presentation to a room full of people, for example.
Now, a bit of stress and anxiety can actually be helpful for us sometimes. Both of these see a reaction inside the body that prepares us to face the danger we’re headed for, stand as still as a statue or run from it in the case of stumbling upon a sabre tooth tiger. It’s our fight, flight or freeze response that ensures our bodies can escape danger unharmed. However, knowing this doesn’t really make it any better to go through and the last thing we need before a big meeting is for stress and anxiety to turn us into a blabbering mess with a tight chest and shaking hands.
Because they are vital to our survival it means we cannot simply let go of either and hope to never be gripped by them again. But, there are things we can do to reduce stress and anxiety in our lives, be it taking a step back from our schedules and mixing them up for more downtime, practising calming techniques regularly to prevent them from bubbling up or even taking a break for ourselves to soak up some peace and quiet. Keeping anxiety and stress at bay isn’t really an overnight job, it requires work and patience to figure out how we best manage stress and cope with the anxiety that’s effective for us.
However, there are moments when stress and anxiety build and they build fast, and we don’t have time for a 6-week cognitive behavioural therapy course, or we haven’t already become masters of serenity. So here are 5 ways to combat stress and anxiety in the moment:
1. Stay in the present
Anxiety is provoked when we focus on what might happen instead of what is happening. So in a moment of nerves or fear, remind ourselves to stay present. What is happening right now? Focus on surroundings, tasks at hand, or even if we’re safe in the now. Gently pull away from thinking what could happen or go wrong - we can’t predict the future so why worry?! (it’s not as simple as that but the point still stands).
2. Fact check our thoughts
We often create scenarios of how we imagine situations will work out. Going on a first date? Not done ‘dating’ for a while? Not great at small talk? This might lead us to believe the date will be awkward (terrible even). But how do we know, where are the facts in this? Instead try thinking, “it might be awkward, but we can always talk about food” or something along those lines. In a moment of heightened stress and anxiety, pause for a moment and check the truth in what we’re thinking.
3. Use the 3-3-3 rule
Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, lost in a frenzy of thoughts that confuse and stress us out further! In moments like this, try the 3-3-3 rule. Name 3 things we can see, 3 things we can hear, and move 3 body parts; ankles, wrists, fingers, toes (it doesn’t need to be a full-body workout, just a simple twitch will do). This exercise tricks the brain into focusing on the present and returns some clarity to the mind.
4. Breathe and stand up straight
This might sound too simple, or not enough to combat stress and anxiety but the power of our breath is tremendous. Deep breathing makes the brain think we are relaxed and so signals to the rest of the body that we are safe, and we begin to feel calmer. While standing up straight reminds the brain that we are in control. We often hunch over in times of anxiety, a physical response to protect our vital organs in the upper body. Try pulling the shoulders back and opening the chest, while standing or sitting with our feet shoulder-width apart - it’s an immediate antidote to reduce stress and anxiety just by changing our posture and taking a deep breath.
5. Have a laugh
Laughter has frequently been named the ‘best medicine’ and rightly so to be fair, even faking a laugh can lead to real laughter and it instantly relaxes the brain and body. Laughing can have similar effects to exercise to combat stress and anxiety (maybe we could start laughing more to get a 6-pack too then?). Watch a funny video clip, read some ‘dad jokes’, get together with friends who make us belly-laugh, try a spot of laughing yoga (yes, it’s really a thing) or fake a laugh till it turns real - it might feel weird but stress and anxiety will melt away.
Before we go: we can do these things to reduce stress and anxiety to help us manage in the moment, they ground and refocus us. But there is no real ‘fix’ for either, stress and anxiety are survival instincts we all have to protect us from danger, and they do not need totally wiping out. They can, however, wreak havoc when they strike but with these tips, we’ll be the cool, calm and collected beings we need to be to smash that job interview (or whatever other stressful situations we might face)!