What I’ve Learned About Stress

What I've Learned About Stress

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Art of the Arm by DJ Lynn

It’s easier said than done. But you knew that so let’s all admit that when you feel stressed it’s really hard to sit and meditate or even take deep breaths. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder many years ago and I’ve been trying to figure it out and adapt ever since. It’s an ongoing battle. The most effective way to deal with it for me is to stay in my house and never leave, but even that doesn’t work all the time plus it’s not really the best approach since I want to have a life.

There’s a fine line between stress and anxiety. Both are emotional responses, but stress is typically caused by an external trigger. The trigger can be short-term, such as a work deadline or a fight with a loved one or long-term, such as being unable to work, discrimination, or chronic illness.

People under stress experience mental and physical symptoms, such as irritability, anger, fatigue, headaches, panic attacks, muscle pain, digestive troubles, and difficulty sleeping. Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. But both stress and anxiety result in the same symptoms and if unmanaged, the same physical short and long term outcomes.

Whatever you choose to call it or your doctor calls it, the response and the way you modify your response is different for everyone. The longer you ignore stress symptoms the more likely they will advance into major anxiety which hangs around for the long haul and can cause significant impairment in social and occupational functioning as well as reduced immune response, high blood pressure or even a heart attack.


Learning to cope with stress can require some trial and error. What works for your best friend might not work for you. It’s important to build your own stress reduction toolkit so that you have more than one strategy to implement. Here are a few ideas that might work for you if you practice them before you have a stress event:

Practice staying present: Anxiety and stress is often caused because you’re thinking into the future about something that might happen. Stay present.

Relaxation breathing: The single best thing you can do when under stress is to start deep breathing. Practice this strategy when you’re calm so you know how to use it when you’re under pressure. Inhale for a count of four, hold for four, and exhale for four. Repeat. There are multiple apps and free online meditation videos if you need a little help.

Get creative: There’s a reason adult coloring books are so popular – they work. Whether you’re drawing, coloring, writing poetry, or throwing paint on a wall, engaging in a creative hobby gives your mind a chance to relax.

Listen to music:  Slow relaxing music has been shown to slow your breathing and decrease your stress response.

Mindfulness meditation: There are apps for this, but the best way to practice mindfulness is to disconnect from your digital world and reconnect with your natural world for a specific period of time each day. Take a walk outside and use the opportunity to notice your surroundings using all of your senses.

Talk therapy:  You can go to a therapist if you want but you can also practice self-talk therapy. Here’s how you do self-talk therapy:

  • Make three columns on a sheet of paper (or open an Excel document or Google spreadsheet). You can do this anytime morning or night but it’s good to do it once a day.
  • In the first column, write your automatic thought. What negative thing did you tell yourself today? Was it about work or a relationship? “Work was terrible today. I’m not good at presentations and I could tell my boss hated it.”
  • Now read your statement and look for the cognitive distortions to write in the second column. There may be several. In the example above there are at least four: overgeneralization, all or nothing thinking, mental filter, and jumping to conclusions.
  • Finally, in the third column, write your rational response. This is when your logical brain takes over and you think objectively about what you’re feeling and rewrite your automatic thought. Using the example, you might write, “My presentation could have gone better, but I’ve done better ones in the past. Did my boss really hate it? I couldn’t really tell she seemed distracted. I’ll talk to her tomorrow about how I could have made it better. This is not a bad day. I am learning and growing.”

But what if you feel a wave of anxiety coming over you? How do you stop a panic attack before it hits full force? Here are some things that worked for me.

  • A rubber band. At work or in public I always kept a rubber band around my wrist and if I felt a panic attack coming on, I would snap that rubber band. 
  • Find a focus object. Pick one object in clear sight and consciously note everything about it. Notice the patterns in the carpet, the details of a clock on the wall. I would always pick an object that was not moving – something that was still and consistent, in other words don’t look outside at moving traffic but you could look at some fluffy clouds or the mountains in the distance.
  • Create a happy place and go there in your head. I used to go to a quiet beach and watch the waves roll in.
  • Do you have a favorite perfume or smell? Lavender is an essential oil that is known to be stress relieving. Mix it with some carrier oil and keep a small vial in your desk drawer and apply to your wrists or forearms as needed. I love the smell of eucalyptus and it calms me, so I bought some eucalyptus hand lotion and always carried it around in my purse.
  • Create a short mantra that you can repeat to yourself. I used this a lot and you can use it when you’re in a crowd or in a meeting. When your body is reacting with a fight or flight response, remind yourself it is just a panic attack and it will pass. Tell yourself you are calm and it will pass. Continue to repeat your mantra.
  • If you find your mind racing try again to focus on an object or something you hear that’s comforting. Some therapists call this the 333 rule – move or wiggle three parts of your body – perhaps your fingers, your wrist and your ankle.
  • If you’re home alone watch funny movies and sitcoms. Laughing is a great prescription for an anxious mind. Read my post about how watching the television show Frasier over and over calmed me.
  • Your last resort should be medication. Even short-term use can cause dependency and then you’ll have an additional problem to manage.

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