The ability to understand and manage our stress and anxiety are both important pillars of our Mental Fitness. They often have something of an interdependent relationship with each other arriving as part of the same experience.
Stress is our response to a threat: we fear what we believe threatens us
Anxiety is our reaction to stress: we worry about what we fear
They are both natural, normal, healthy and necessary emotional and psychological experiences that are rooted in biological processes and the release of the hormones that prepare the body to respond to a threat.
Adrenaline – with a short term effect for for fight or flight
Cortisol – with a longer term effect for remaining vigilant
Neither stress or anxiety are a problem if they depart when the source of stress departs. In fact they can actually help us perform at our best. (Check out our e-guide to stress here to get a thorough understanding of how we can manage our stress to perform at our best).
Developing our self awareness of the difference between “good” anxiety and what it feels like when it becomes challenging for us can be the first step in managing it.
Anxiety can help us be more productive if it means the cortisol in our brains is keeping us vigilant about a problem or challenge. It can manifest itself in conscientiousness, being aware of what we need to do and getting stuff done.
But if it becomes a constant presence, a continued sense of worry and whirling thoughts then it can impair performance.
So first ask whether you are in the stretch, the strain or the overwhelm.
So if you’re feeling like you’re moving beyond stretch and into the strain, what can you do to manage anxiety?
- Reduce it. The simple act of slowing our breath can reduce levels of cortisol which are the biochemicals behind the anxious thoughts. Spend 1-2m breathing more slowly before taking time to explore the thoughts.
- Reflect on it. Take a step back from the thoughts themselves and think about the fears that underpin your stress and anxiety: Are they realistic or exaggerated?; Do you catastrophise or expect the worst possible outcome?; Are your fears helping or hindering you?
- Talk about it. Getting thoughts and worries out of our heads can help them feel more manageable and separate the realistic worries from the exaggerated. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, colleague, or coach about your worries or develop a ‘share your worries’ support network with colleagues. Talking to someone else can help us figure some things out, which we can’t do when we’re just talking to ourselves in our heads.
- Act on it. Use your reflection to select one or two thoughts and worries that you could do something about. Even taking a small action in response to a thought or moving a problem on can help us feel more in control of other worries.
- Get help with it. If you are approaching overwhelm don’t deal with anxiety alone. Talk to a GP, health professional, or HR colleague if you think your stress and anxiety is escalating to a problematic level. Sometimes we just need help from another person.
Understanding our stress and anxiety can be the first step to managing it. Taking time to reflect regularly on how it can be triggered and how it either serves us or undermine us can help build our Mental Fitness over time.
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