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Seven Ways to Reduce Stress in Anxious Times

Large-scale worries are sabotaging our ability to cope, therapists say, and they have some tips for staying calm, writes Elizabeth Bernstein in ‘Bonds: On Relationships.’

By

Elizabeth Bernstein

Wine. Chocolate. Binge-watching “The Crown.”

How are your coping strategies working for you these days?

Therapists have, for months, been reporting a significant increase in clients who are stressed and saddened by current events—hurricanes, fires, the threat of nuclear war. In some cases, they say, these large-scale worries are undermining people’s ability to cope with their own private stressors.

In addition to talk therapy, many therapists teach their clients new tactics for dealing with anxiety and stress when it arises.

Psychologists use the term “emotion regulation” to describe how we change our emotions. Most often (but not always) people want to change, or “down regulate,” a negative emotion. We can effectively reduce anxiety or worry in one of two fundamental ways, says Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the regulation of emotions. You can switch your attention to something else, such as when you are on an unpleasant flight and you watch a movie. Or you can change the way you conceptualize the situation: A co-worker snaps at you, yet you try not to take it personally because you realize he is under a lot of stress. “This gives us agency,” Dr. Schweitzer says. “We can choose what to focus on and decide how we want to react.”

Distract yourself by putting down the phone and playing upbeat music.Illustration: Thomas Pitilli

Many people rely on exercise, yoga and meditation, and favorite music, all proven to reduce stress and calm our nervous system. Peter Wagner, 60, an investment manager in New York, has created a “calm-down” playlist of songs, which includes Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” and Randy Newman’s “Sail Away.” Barry McCarthy, 74, a psychology professor in Washington, D.C., curbs his late-night worrying by reminding himself that problems seem unsolvable between midnight and 5 a.m., and switching to thoughts of past or future vacations. And when Mary Westheimer, 62, a business manager from Phoenix, is anxious, she pictures a water faucet, turns the tap on in her mind and lets all the water run out.

Shannon McCormick, 42, a public relations manager from Columbus, Ohio, limits her worrying to one room in the house, a stress-management strategy that a nun taught her in high school. (She uses the bathroom.) Liz Singer, 61, a psychotherapist in New York, puts both hands on her chest and envisions her body progressively relaxing, from the soles of her feet on up. Then she focuses in her mind on a place she loves in upstate New York. Brooke Devine, 39, a school psychologist in Louisville, Ky., practices deep breathing by imagining her breath coming in her body, filling her lungs and abdomen, and then releasing out. And Ellen Jovin, 51, a communication skills consultant from New York, has recently started listening to audiobooks about ancient history or science. “How much can you really worry about an unpleasant task hanging over your head when you are learning about delightful ancient sea creatures?” she says.

I put on upbeat music, and try to distract myself with a funny show, movie or novel. ( Carl Hiaasen has never let me down.) I have sticky notes above my desk, on my nightstand and on the front of each journal I use that say “Don’t speculate!” They are constant reminders that it is impossible to know the outcome of an event or what another person is thinking or will do. So it’s better to focus on my own actions, which are the only thing I can control.

And when I’m really stressed I picture my friend, James, who taught me to scuba dive, giving me an OK sign. It’s a signal often used in diving, and the first time James flashed me an OK sign, 40 feet down in the Atlantic, and I replied with my own, was a transformative experience for me. Now, imagining someone I trust asking me if I’m OK, and responding in my head “yes” immediately calms me down.

Speaking your worries out loud helps you realize how you speak to yourself and identify thoughts that may sound ridiculous when verbalized.Illustration: Thomas Pitilli

Some Advice From the Experts on How to Calm Yourself Down:

Focus on your breath. Research shows that a technique called “breath-focused attention” lowers activity in the amygdala, the brain’s fear and anxiety center. People who practice it regularly have fewer negative emotional experiences overall.

For five minutes, focus on the feeling of air passing the outside edge of your nostrils. You don’t have to try to breathe deeply or slow down your breath. Just focus on the sensation.

Identify the cause. A study by researchers at Yale University and the University of Toronto, published in 2013 in the journal “Psychological Science, showed that people often misattribute the source of their anxiety. They think it is one thing when it really is another. As a result, they make bad decisions. An example: You almost get into a car accident on your way home from work, which leaves you sweaty and tense. Then when you get home you need to make an investment decision and are more conservative than you would normally be.

Some questions to ask yourself: What is the source of your feelings? Do they stem from something you are dealing with in the moment or a different issue? “Focus only on what is before you,” says Jeremy Yip, the lead researcher on the study, who is now an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Don’t ruminate. As soon as you notice yourself doing it, decide to take action. Brad Stulberg, a mental-skills coach for executives and entrepreneurs in Oakland, Calif., and author of “Peak Performance,” tells clients that the question “what if?” is a clue they’re ruminating, as is feeling their mind is racing for 10 minutes.

Pause and ask yourself what step you can take. Are you worried about your child? Plan some quality time with her. Upset about a natural disaster or political issue? Make a donation. You’ll feel better because you’ve taken control of your thoughts and done something, however small, to make the situation better.

Put down your phone. Social media can produce the same gawker effect as a car accident on the highway, Mr. Stulberg says. We can’t tear our eyes away from the carnage on Twitter or Facebook . This is a pathway to rumination, so set a time limit for social media.

Visualize your anxiety. Focus intently for a moment on your worry and give it a rating on a one-to-10 scale. Picture where the fear is in your body—chest, throat, abdomen? Then imagine your fear as an object, such as a fiery, red ball.

A technique called ‘breath-focused attention’ lowers activity in the brain’s fear and anxiety center. Illustration: Thomas Pitilli

Now, imagine the color of the ball changing. Make it pink or pale yellow. Put stripes or polka dots on it. Visualize it changing size. Then lift it up over your head in your mind and imagine the breeze carrying it away. “This allows you to shape your emotions in a positive way,” says Candida Abrahamson, a life coach in Skokie, Ill.

Say it out loud. “When our voice is trapped in our mind we start to believe it is true,” says Vasavi Kumar, a licensed social worker in Austin, Texas. Speaking it out loud helps you realize how you speak to yourself and identify thoughts that may sound ridiculous when verbalized.

Tap. The “emotional freedom technique,” or “tapping,” helps calm anxiety by focusing on our energy and where it may be blocked, says Julie Barthels, a licensed clinical social worker in Rockford, Ill. You start by labeling your emotion as specifically as you can—“I am worried my partner is irritated with me”—and rating it on a one-10 scale. Then, take two fingers and tap gently on the top of your head while saying your worry slowly out loud several times.

Repeat this by tapping in the following spots down the same side of your body: the inside of your eyebrow, outside of your eyebrow, under your eye, your chin, your collarbone, and the side of your torso.

After you finish, take a deep breath and rate the strength of your feeling. Repeat as needed until you get to one. “It sounds hokey, but it works,” Ms. Barthels says.

—Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at elizabeth.bernstein@wsj.com or follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at EBernsteinWSJ

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