Identifying and managing stress and anxiety

People often think of stress and anxiety as being interchangeable, and whilst there are similarities, there are also distinct differences and some different ways of responding. Identifying what you are struggling with is important in helping you to decide how to tackle your difficulties.

Stress is a reaction to external circumstances that have become overwhelming, either because of the intensity of the situation, how we are reacting to the circumstances, or because there are too many issues we are dealing with at the same time. Stress can be a strong reaction to an individual situation or a reaction that can build up over time. Symptoms we may notice are:

  • Irritability.
  • Headaches.
  • Sweaty palms.
  • Sleep disturbance.
  • Physical aches.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Overthinking or confused thinking.
  • Difficulty switching off.
  • Tiredness.

Anxiety tends to come from within, in terms of how we are reacting to or thinking about ourselves, others or life in general. Anxiety can be short term, and a normal reaction to a situation such as giving a talk or starting a new job, but it can also be longer term and become more problematic. Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Excessive worrying.
  • Restlessness, or feeling fidgety.
  • Tiredness.
  • Irritability.
  • Sleep disturbance.
  • Avoidance of situations.
  • Headaches, dizziness, pins and needles.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Hyperventilating.

Strategies that you may find helpful are:

Identify the causes of stress. Write a list of all of the little and big things that are currently causing stress. Include all areas of life - work, relationships, home, family. Reflecting on the list, notice which areas you have control over and which you don’t. For example, you may not have control over the need to work, but you may be able to make some changes to what you do for work or the hours you work.  Recognising areas that you have the power to change can be an empowering experience and even small changes can have a big impact on your levels of stress.

Prioritise how you want to spend your time. Separate your lists above into priorities, and allocate an amount of time you’re willing to spend on each item. Begin to add other areas into your list that don’t bring you stress, such as socialising, fun and relaxation, so that you can begin to gain some balance in your life and have some control over each area. Rating each item's importance to you will help you decide how long you are prepared to give to each area. Once you have done this, begin to work on a plan as to how you can make changes to satisfy your commitment to each area of your life.

Recognising unhelpful thinking patterns. When we become overly anxious we can notice that our thoughts become more negative. We often predict that something bad will happen, make assumptions about other people’s opinions of us, or put undue pressure on how we ‘should’ be. Having regular negative thoughts can be very distressing and can cause us to feel anxious even when we are safe and all is going well. Identifying the kinds of thoughts we are having and trying to understand the triggers for these thoughts can help us to make sense of our anxiety and begin to challenge these negative thoughts.

Try not to avoid uncomfortable situations. Anxiety causes us to want to escape and avoid situations as our fight/flight response will become activated when we feel threatened. Avoiding things that trigger our anxiety will likely bring short term relief, but in the long run this will keep us in the cycle of anxiety and avoidance and may even make our anxiety worse. Try to slowly build up your tolerance to these triggers by setting yourself goals and using coping strategies that work for you.

Practice mindfulness or use relaxation techniques. When we are experiencing stress, our body reacts by producing stress hormones that are responsible for the physical symptoms that we experience. Practicing relaxation, such as mindfulness, can reduce the stress hormones released and allow us to regain control of our body and our mind. There are many free apps that can be downloaded or why not search for groups in your local area? This is something that can be enjoyed by yourself or with the whole family; you could even use it as an opportunity to spend time with friends, or make new ones.

Exercise. The benefits exercise has to our physical and mental health is well documented. Find a form of exercise that suits you, whether it’s swimming, walking, dancing or yoga, either within a group or individually. If you haven’t found the right exercise for you yet, keep looking and don’t give up. Start slowly, don’t expect immediate results, and be kind to yourself.

Fun/enjoyment. Are you having enough fun and doing things that you enjoy? Both stress and anxiety can cause us to stop taking part in activities that we would normally enjoy, and this can then lead to increased stress and anxiety. Whether you prefer spending time with others or enjoy your own company, it is important that you are nurturing your sense of fun. Write a list of activities that you find enjoyable, or have done in the past, or have been interested in but not yet tried; try to include some of these activities in your weekly plans. Be kind to yourself if your stress and anxiety are making things difficult. Start small with activities that feel manageable, in the house or out, and notice the impact.

Seek support. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and other forms of counselling can help you to recognise unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviours that contribute to stress and anxiety. If you feel that you would benefit from support, you can contact your GP or search for counselling in your local area.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Birmingham B13 & B14
Written by Annette Lilley, Integrative Therapist MBACP, DipHE, BA
Birmingham B13 & B14

Annette Lilley has over 10 years experience of counselling young people and adults, as well as running Mindfulness groups to reduce stress, anxiety and low mood in Birmingham and Solihull.

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