As 2021 gets underway, amid the aroma of excitement and new possibilities that a new year brings, people across the world are facing unprecedented scenarios that are only short of maddening. The start of 2021 has been all but peaceful and relaxing to say the least. I do not know about you, but Christmas through New Year’s vacation did not feel like much of a vacation. Over the last month or so now, I have had more anxiety attacks than ever before. To put that in context, before this last stent of attacks (four in the last three weeks), the last one that I had prior to was never.
The abnormality of this experience encouraged me to write this article on ways to reduce and hopefully relieve any anxiety that you may be experiencing at this time as well. I included stress in the title because feelings of anxiety are derivatives of a stressor(s) and the same techniques to help soothe a person’s anxiety can also help in managing their stress levels.
Unfortunately, there is an abundance of things for people to allow themselves to be stressed about. In addition to the Covid-19 vaccine dissemination debacle in the United States, there is also: the now three new strain variants of Covid, the failed disgraceful coup attempt and siege on the United Sates Capitol, the multitude of American families facing financial ruin as unemployment numbers tick higher and more and more small businesses close indefinitely. There are millions of people around the world facing more aggressive lock down orders and restrictions, and the political environment is becoming less and less favorable towards everyday people.
On the flip side of that coin, people are also rightfully concerned and anxious about their own well being. If you are like me, then the top of a new year is a time to reflect and plan and set the trajectory for the course of your year. This can be an anxious endeavor in and of itself (it was for me), even more so when you consider the degree of ambiguity, we have all been forced to live with going into this year.
Anxiety stems from an incessant worrying. When your stressors become greater than your capacity to handle them, they will begin to weigh you down. This will take the shape of worry, uneasiness, nervousness, and apprehension. If these symptoms persist and exacerbate, they can lead to even greater symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, loss of concentration, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbances (difficulty falling or staying asleep) — symptoms more aligned with an anxiety disorder, or a panic disorder/attack. A preventative measure for combating anxiety and avoiding these symptoms is by monitoring your stress levels.
Our bodies tell [warn] us when something is not right with it. Your body reacts to the amount of stress that it is undertaking. By knowing your body and how it communicates with you, you can begin to identify when your stress levels may be high, and take the proper steps necessary to address the trigger(s) causing the destabilization of your equilibrium. Some high stress level indicators include: acne, headaches, getting sick easily/frequently, noticeable [drastic] change in diet, decreased sex drive, depleted energy, and digestive difficulties.
From my experiences, the last attacks that I have had were rooted in worry and apprehension. Over the last three weeks I was writing my life and business plans for the coming year; and at various points throughout that process, I allowed the stress of the prospects of my future (or lack thereof) to overwhelm me to the point of heart palpitations, mental and physical fatigue, and body temperature irregularities. The first time this happened, because of my mental health background, I was able to immediately identify that I was experiencing an anxiety attack, and I was able to lean on my knowledge of the subject to alleviate my disturbed mental state.
The following are my five ways [techniques] to relieve stress and anxiety:
1. Take Deep Breaths
There is a myriad of benefits associated with taking deep breaths. Specifically, however, as it relates to relieving stress and anxiety, taking deep breaths is a game changer. No matter who you are, everyone at some point ‘needs a moment’. Taking a moment can mean anything that includes whatever it takes to return your body and mind to a state of equilibrium. This is not limited to deep breaths but rather, deep breathing is foundational in its purposes of helping to alleviate stress from various triggers.
When you take a moment to breathe you are signaling to your brain to slow your body down including your heart rate. Deep breaths allow for more oxygen to flow into your blood cells which equates to an optimization of your body’s functions. Think of taking a deep breath like restarting a slow computer, deleting corrupt files, or running a virus scan and removal program — the purpose is ultimately to help you “run” better.
Do not pis-posh this technique as it is both simple yet essential. Everyone breathes. I personally have yet to meet a living thing that does not breathe (part and parcel to the arduous efforts of scientists’ pursuit of the creation of artificial life — which while is arguably technically alive, does not in fact inhale or exhale oxygen, carbon dioxide, or anything of the sort). Breathing is so necessitous to the lived experience, that most of us do so on an automatic basis. It takes more conscious effort for us to hold our breath than it does for us to continuously inhale and exhale throughout a normal 24-hour period.
Such being the case, by taking a moment to focus on your breathing when you are feeling anxious or stressed, you are intentionally changing the state of your body. Think of an aircraft (or a Tesla) and autopilot versus manual control. When something is on autopilot or cruise control, it is set to function at a certain level — meeting the needs of the moment and environment in which it is being used. When our breathing is automatic, we typically do not pay attention to it because it is serving the purpose of helping us function on a higher [sentient] level.
Manual control however requires a literal hands-on approach and is necessary for crucial aspects of any trip by flight, ship, car, or otherwise. in the same way, when we intentionally focus on our breathing, we put ourselves in the driver seat of the everyday working condition of our body. This is important because just like an airplane takes off and lands, or a car speeds up, slows down, and parks, people also need to be able to regulate [control] their breathing during various courses of their day, so that they can ‘self-optimize’ for the purpose of meeting the needs of whatever moment they may find themselves in.
A practice that works well with deep breathing is meditation. Meditation is the process through which a person can naturally relax and calm their mind body and spirit through focused time and attention on deep breathing, mental clarity, and spiritual connectivity. This can be done by creating an intentionally peaceful space for the purpose of allowing focused time to sit quietly (or with ambient music playing), and be at ease by closing your eyes, taking synchronized deep breaths, and allowing your existence to experience tranquility.
2. Go for a Walk
Going for a walk is another one of those easy to overlook stress relievers that can actually make a world of difference. The most immediate benefit is that it causes you to move. To walk, you literally have to get up and move your body. This is beneficial to relieving stress because physical activity of any kind promotes the release of dopamine and serotonin in your brain which has a direct impact on your mood and positivity.
Going for a walk also requires that you change your environment. In most cases, when you go for a walk you are typically doing so in a gym or outside, or at a space designed to facilitate walking (i.e., a mall). This is important because it allows you to momentarily get away from a potential stressor/environmental trigger. By creating distance with the thing(s) that may be causing you stress and anxiety in your environment, you give yourself that much needed moment to breathe, collect your thoughts, and consider your response.
There is nothing wrong with needing to take a moment to clear your head by getting out of an environment that is not conducive to promoting a healthy state of stability within yourself. Not to beat a dead horse, but once again, sometimes, just creating distance between you and a situation whether it be literally, metaphorically, or otherwise, can be the key to you being able to find the freedom you need to be the person you want to be and to do the things required of you to do to be that person.
All walking is, is a physical movement. If you are fitness junky like myself, then another way in which you can check this off of your mental health stability criteria is by doing focused physical movement by working out in a gym or gym-like environment. Daily exercise has a plethora of benefits including reducing risks for high blood pressure and heart attack, improving your sleep and sex life, and increasing your chances of living longer, all of which aid in the propping up of our mental health.
Anything that will help you get out of your reality even if just for a few minutes to a few hours is a good thing when dealing with stress and anxiety. Why do you think people go on vacations? To get away from their normal stressors and to allow themselves to think freely and to do so clearly. Almost all of us will have more problems than opportunities to go on vacation this year however, going to the gym, going for a walk, or any kind of physical activity could potentially provide you with the same or similar type of relief that getting away [escaping] from a negative environmental stimulus can.
3. Take a [Mental] Break
At what point do we become too old to take a time out? I say never! Historically, taking a time out has had a negative connotation however, if you are a mature adult, you know the necessity of sometimes taking a break. We live in a culture (western culture) that loves the newest most shiny and expensive nouns [persons, places, and things]. We fetishize the new and obfuscate the “obsolete” — when the “obsolete” could literally be only five minutes old.
With the rate at which we are required to produce to stay relevant whether it be at work, in social circles, or within our own personal goals and endeavors, burnout is something that can come into our lives both quickly and easily. Burnout is essentially a moment in time when your stress levels are so great due to a prolonged exposure to a specific stressor, that you become ineffective in your daily life due to the gravity of the stress and anxiety you may be experiencing. The challenge with stress that stems from your work/social life, is that you cannot always eliminate the cause from your life. In addition to the aforementioned techniques, taking a mental health break is an all too valuable tool in your arsenal for dealing with anxiety.
Sometimes the best thing to do, especially in today’s world, is to back away from the screen. That show will still be there, you’re probably streaming it. Your work project is still going to be on your laptop if you shut it down, and putting your phone on airplane mode will not cause the apocalypse. It is not selfish to take a mental health day, week, or month — lifestyle providing. In fact, it’s the opposite, how can you benefit others if you cannot even keep yourself together?
A mental health break can include anything except the thing that requires your focused attention at the moment. Some may refer to this as procrastination however, I would argue, that even procrastination has purpose. It is not good to force yourself beyond your means to execute. A key rule to this idea is to under promise and over deliver. If you cannot over deliver on your work excellently, then maybe a break is what you need, to recalibrate yourself and to comeback later to the drawing board with fresh ideas.
Pressuring yourself to produce something that you cannot is an invitation for a panic or anxiety attack. A mental health break is literally you saying ‘I need to think about something else’. It is okay to reclaim your mind. Before you had an obligation to others, as an adult you have an obligation to yourself. Your sanity is at least just as important as that project or assignment that you may be working on. By taking a break from something (or someone) you are clearing away the anxiety roadblock that may be preventing you from achieving your breakthrough.
4. Treat Yourself
Ok so let me start by saying that this is a difficult one even for me. On one hand, who would not want to put themselves first, but on the other hand prosperity does not always align with purpose. If you only live to satisfy yourself you will have no regard for others however, if you live to only satisfy people, you will have no regard for yourself. You must be able to strike a balance.
I have recently started thinking about my energy like money on a credit card. The idea is to not over spend — max out my energy levels and reserves sooner than I can replenish them. As a rule, I have been intentional about not using over 40% of my energy a day. Now that 40% is an arbitrary number so do not give it too much weight — you know when you have exhausted yourself. Nevertheless, striking a healthy work life balance is key to mitigating stress in our lives.
Treating yourself can sometimes be a great way to self-rejuvenate. We have all done it before: that spontaneous trip, that “surprise” gift to yourself, or that much needed spa day. In those moments the most common prevailing thought and idea is that we earned it, and that we have a right to treat ourselves. It is okay to celebrate yourself this year. Do not let the tensions going on in the world rob you of your right to be happy, to be at peace, and to be in joy.
Treating yourself every now and again as a rewards system is a great way to encourage self-accountability, as well as replenish yourself when you are near over spent. All work and no play makes no one happy, and can cause negative health and wealth ramifications.
5. Face [Embrace] your Anxiety
As a warning: this technique is not easy, and could require you to seek external help. Typically, depending on the type of anxiety, a source for the anxiety can usually be identified. In cases like these, when you can identify what exactly it is that is the source of your anxiety, an option for you in that moment is to address it directly.
I share this technique cautiously because there is a foundation of self-efficacy that should be established before attempting to embrace what has been potentially tormenting you. When you face your anxiety its like facing your fears, but with compassion. As opposed to treating the things making you anxious like hostile threats, you would instead rather, empathize and rationalize with the anxiety for the purpose of self-discovery.
As mentioned, on the other side of anxiety is a breakthrough — and sometimes, that breakthrough is in you. By identifying, addressing, and rationalizing with your anxious thoughts you give yourself access to a version of yourself that you may have been running from without realizing it. This is where external help can be pivotal. Sometimes we can identify the thing that we are anxious about and still be anxious about talking about it.
Your current lived experience is a culmination of your past lived experiences. Sometimes we are carrying stuff because we do not know how to put them down. Having someone who can help you see a different side of a familiar problem can be the difference between you continuing to suffer in the anguish of your anxiousness, and experiencing a new life that was always there, but is now available.
No one is immune to anxiety. It is ever present throughout the backdrops of our lives, it can creep up on us, and when it does it can overwhelm us. The good news is, you do not have to be a victim to your anxiety; the bad news is, that you may need some help to be set free. You can reduce and relieve stress and anxiety in your every day life by committing time to take focused deep breaths. By engaging in regular physical activity, by taking a break every now and again, and by treating yourself. If you have the resolve and are confident enough in your ability to do so, you can also embrace your anxious thoughts by empathizing with their reality and discovering a path through that dissonance.
Above all else however, I would encourage you to seek professional help if you feel as though your stress and anxiety levels are unmanageable or you are having difficulty doing so. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, if not more so. An anxious life is not a happy life regardless of how physically healthy you may be. Do not give yourself another excuse in 2021 to not be the best version of yourself. Commit to yourself that of the things that could go wrong in 2021 losing your peace love and joy will not be one of them.