• Dr. Sharon Livingston

7 Steps to Control Stress & Anxiety

In my practice, over the past 25 years, I’ve observed that people tend to present as either primarily anxious or primarily depressed. If you tend towards the anxiety spectrum, you’re lucky. Anxiety propels people to take action. It’s much harder to live with depression because it saps our power and will to move.

As uncomfortable as it may feel, Anxiety is actually a potent form of physical and emotional energy that we can take charge of and use for positive purposes in our lives. That’s why it’s there in higher species for sophisticated problem solving. It’s an alert to pay attention and assess the situation. More importantly, it’s a motivator to take action when and if needed. It also helps us rethink our beliefs and life plans and helps us to move forward to our better dreams and better selves.

There are two types of anxiety that people report. One is situational. The other is free floating.

In situational anxiety, something in the moment reminds us of a fearful event and we worry that the same thing could happen again. We experience the alarm even when only a small part of the elements of the frightening experience are present. Fear is in response to a real threat – a gun pointed at you. Anxiety is a learned response – a stranger pulls something out of his pocket that at first reminds you of a weapon, but it was only a packet of something innocuous.

The triggers for free floating anxiety may be more subtle with people and harder to figure out because we pick up on so many cues. In today’s world so many people have the sword of downsizing hanging over their heads, relationship stressors, COVID concerns and other overriding issues that are out of their control and sometimes out of their awareness. My clients say things such as, “Why am I feeling anxious? Nothing is wrong! It just came out of nowhere.”

For both situational and free-floating forms of anxiety, what we do in our sessions is start to untangle the connections so clients can see what activated their negative response and help them take back control.

Introducing the THRIVE™ Program: 7 Steps for Controlling Stress and Anxiety

Step One: Taking Stock of the Situation Identify the Sources of Your Anxiety

Learning how to separate the real alarms from the false alarms is key to managing your anxiety. Anxiety is fear of the unknown. When you examine the situation that has elements that may have been associated with dread in the past, you’ll probably realize that none are as threatening as you fear. Giving a talk in public or asking your boss for a raise might trigger an anxiety alarm bell, even though neither situation will kill you.

As you notice that you’re feeling uneasy or really frightened step outside of yourself for a moment Enlist all your senses, not just your intuition which has you on alert. What do you see? Hear? Feel? Smell? Do you have a different taste in your mouth? Checking all your reality meters, do you now believe you are in danger? What, if anything, do you need to do under the circumstances?

Most people start to identify the origins of their anxiety during this exercise. It helps them to sort out whether there really is danger or just danger by association that’s not really present at this time.

Step Two: Take a Break

How to Step Back from a Stressful Environment

When you’re feeling jittery or over stimulated by either an identified or unidentified stressor, it’s good to take a break and regroup. Get up and go outside where you can walk and breathe and think. Just 10 minutes will allow you to relax and get a different perspective on what’s happening. When you’re feeling agitated, do your best to stay away from known stressors. Sometimes avoiding a coworker who constantly criticizes you, or giving yourself permission to skip out on an anxiety provoking networking event, might be healthy ways to cope in the moment. There’s probably no urgency. Give yourself the space to calm your feelings and collect your thoughts before reentering the stressful situation.

Step Three: Stop Blaming Yourself

How To Nurture Self-Compassion

You need to recognize that anxiety is not your fault. This may sound easy but it’s actually one of the hardest things for my clients to do. Why? Because as long as we feel responsible, we feel in control. If only I did or said ______, this wouldn’t have happened. As long as I think I have a part in why this happened to me, I can change it.

Reproaching yourself for your reactions is counter-productive. Self-blame serves no purpose but leads to self-hate and feelings of inadequacy. Research shows that negative self-talk is aligned with failure, anxiety and paralyzing depression – I just can’t, I’m not smart enough, I’m not good at this, I’m not good looking enough, I’m NOT . . . [fill in the blank, we all can].

You may not realize it, but talking to yourself this way is sabotaging, increasing your stress levels and anxiety. In self-blame, you may be perceiving events in your life as worse than they actually are. It’s a learned habit which takes over when there may actually be a bright side to the situation that you’re overlooking. While blaming yourself makes failure more likely, positive self-talk is a great predictor of success.

The antidote to self-blame is self-compassion.

Respect your reactions as you unravel the causes of your disquiet. Anxiety is a normal, learned response often associated with creativity and intelligence. The smarter you are, the higher your IQ, the more likely you are to recognize small patterns and to feel anxious about what they might suggest. When an element of a previous threat is present, it’s natural to attach the same fear response you had in the past to what is presenting now.

Write yourself a letter of appreciation and gratitude, the way you would recognize a dear friend. Be generous and honest with your acknowledgements. Read the letter with the list of strengths out-loud to yourself when you get up every morning as part of your routine.

From this vantage point of strengths, you’ll be far better at assessing the triggers for your anxiety and what, if any, actions to take.

Step Four: Conduct a Reality Check

How to Separate What You Can’t Control from What You Can

It’s a harsh reality of life. There are things we can control, but many things we can’t. But maybe that’s a gift. To live a good life is to take charge of what we can and let go of struggling to control the rest. You can't prevent a storm from coming, but you can close the windows to keep your home dry. You can't control someone else’s actions, but you can choose how you respond or decide to spend time with someone who treats you better.

Make a list of all the places and situations where you feel like you should be in control, but aren’t. After you’ve written all of them down, look again. There are probably many you can take off the list.

The benefit of giving up trying to control outside forces is that you can relax. It’s not your fault. It’s not your responsibility. Maybe it’s no one’s responsibility. What a relief! You no longer have to hold yourself accountable for the world.

Step Five: The Mind Body Connection

How Exercise and Nutrition Impact Your Mental State

Anxiety is a form of energy that is called upon when we’re under threat. It allows us to fight if we must or take flight if running is a better option. Most of the time the danger is not as bad as it feels, but the whirring stress hormones in our systems are still operating and making us uncomfortable.

At those times you can reduce anxiety by moving. Go for a brisk walk or run. Put on music and dance. Wash the floor, or the tub, as long as the movements are vigorous. You’ll burn off the extra energy and feel more relaxed afterwards. Exercise produces endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.

Avoid the foods and drinks that make your heart beat faster. If you’re going to have caffeine, limit it to the beginning of the day when you can wear off the anxious effects with daily activities. Similarly, during a period of heightened anxiety, consider limiting sugar and white flour, especially before going to sleep.

What we eat does affect our mood. Research shows whole foods, vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, lean meats, and especially fish are helpful for anxiety.

Specific foods that help stress and anxiety include:

Turkey and other tryptophan-containing foods such as lean meats, eggs, dark chocolate, cheese, pineapple, bananas, oats, and tofu. L-tryptophan may be an effective sleep aid and may also help with other conditions, such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and PMS. Tryptophan is a precursor to Serotonin a mood lifting neurotransmitter.

Nuts, especially almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E. Vitamin E deficiency has been linked to mood disorders.

Spinach and Swiss chard are both high in magnesium, a known calming nutrient.

Step Six: Develop Positive Daily Habits.

You Are What You Do

There are some other preparatory actions you can take to build confidence and ward off the fear of the unknown. Since it’s unknown consequences that triggers anxiety, when we take control of everyday moments, we feel more stable and grounded.

Here’s what I suggest to my clients as daily habits.

Act “as if.” Get dressed nicely every day, first thing in the morning after your shower or bath. Dress as if you wanted to make a good impression on someone, even on days when you stay home. Make sure you look good to yourself.

Brain research by Dr. Wataru Sato of Kyoto University reveals that when you choose positive behaviors you rewire a region of the brain called the precuneus which is associated with self-perception. By simply changing your daily habits, you'll be able to control your sense of self, feelings of well-being, purpose, and happiness.

Create a list of things you need to do on your daily calendar. Make sure that you account for how much time you’ll need for each task. Check them off as you complete each one and feel a satisfying sense of accomplishment and enhanced self-worth as you do.

Step Seven: Develop Personal Accountability

Make a Commitment to Do What You Say

Can you trust yourself to make informed decisions on actions and commit to following through? Personal Accountability is about gathering the facts and resources and having the skills to take actions that lead to success. It may start with committing to an action but it goes further. It’s about taking responsibility for the results, good or not so great.

A setback or obstacle may have momentarily derailed you but taking ownership and seeing the results allows you to set a new course and get to your destination.

The positive results of taking ownership for your behaviors and decisions are actions that are well informed, well-conceived and deliberate. With each calculated step you choose, you get that much closer to achieving personal success.

Here’s a good way to start. Create an accountability connection, someone who you like and has similar goals for living a less stressed and more successful life. It might be someone you met in a support group, a coworker, a friend, someone who has shared values. It works best when you and your partner set aside a little time every day to check in and go over your lists of results -oriented actions. Your lists can reside on your calendar so they’re easy to access. It only takes 5 minutes a day to stay on track AND the support from someone who has your best interests in mind is stress relieving as you create a new habit of being accountable to yourself.

As you’re practicing the 7 steps, it’s good to keep a daily journal

One of the ways to deal with any overwhelming emotion is to find a healthy way to express yourself. This makes a journal a helpful tool in managing your feelings and thoughts. By consciously and attentively looking back over your journals, you’re able to track your personal patterns of behavior – to see what works to help you achieve goals and respond well to challenges as well as what might get in the way.

Journaling is proven to reduce stress and feelings of anxiety as well as providing physical health benefits.

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) found that patients struggling with a chronic illness who kept a journal about their thoughts experienced fewer physical symptoms than patients who did not journal. Researchers found that patients that wrote about their thoughts and feelings exhibited reduced mental distress, anxiety, and perceived stress; greater perceived personal resilience and social integration; and fewer days on which pain inhibited usual activities.

There are many other studies on the health benefits of keeping a journal. Journaling regularly [4 + times per week for 10-20 minutes at a time] is proven to lower blood pressure and improve liver function, improve memory and accelerate wound healing. Research also indicates that people who journal on a regular basis have better immunity and live longer and, by their own accounts, enjoy happier lives.

As you practice the steps in the THRIVE Program™, be sure to write about them. It’s not important to be a seasoned writer. It’s just important to get your thoughts and feeling down and allow the healing power of writing to do its magic.

You Were Born to Thrive

The Thrive Program™ is a systematic plan that will enable you to identify and take control of the stress and anxiety that plague our lives. Each stage of the program is designed to keep you moving forward -- from the unease created by the negative mind to a place where you cannot only survive but thrive as you become all that you are meant to be.

Dealing with anxiety takes commitment and dedication. While the steps are clear, actually committing to them and doing them are tough.

Contact me for a free evaluation. 603 505 5000. DrSharonLivingston@Gmail.com

To your success!

Doc Sharon