How to Deal With Stress and Anxiety: 10 Proven Psychological Techniques

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Ten techniques you can use to deal with stress that you can’t avoid.

The best way to reduce stress is, of course, to identify the source and get rid of it.

If only this were possible.

You can try to avoid people who stress you out, say ‘no’ to things you know will cause you stress, and generally do less stuff.

Unfortunately, this is often out of the question or you would have already done it.

So, here are 10 techniques you can use to deal with stress that you can’t avoid.

1. Develop awareness

This is the step most people skip.

Why? Because it feels like we already know the answer.

But sometimes the situations, physical signs and emotions that accompany anxiety aren’t as obvious in the moment.

Here are a few common symptoms of stress and anxiety:

  • excessive sweating.
  • dizziness.
  • tension and muscle aches.
  • tiredness.
  • insomnia.
  • trembling or shaking.
  • a dry mouth.
  • headaches.

So, try keeping a kind of ‘anxiety and stress journal’, whether real or virtual.

When do you feel anxious and stressed and what are those physical signs of anxiety?

When you can identify what’s stressing you out and how you react, you’ll know when to use the techniques below.

2. Simple power of your breath

The mind and the body each feed back to the other.

For example, standing confidently makes people feel more confident.

It’s the same with anxiety: taking conscious control of breathing sends a message back to the mind.

So, when you’re anxious or stressed, which is often accompanied by shallow, quick breathing, try consciously changing it to relaxed breathing, which is usually slower and deeper.

You can count slowly while breathing in and out and try putting your hand on your stomach and feeling the breath moving in and out.

3. Avoid venting emotions

Some of the ways we react to stress are built on false conceptions of how the mind works.

‘Venting’ — letting your emotions out in an angry, tearful and emotional rush — is a good example.

It’s commonly thought that emotions have to be ‘let out’ in order to reduce them.

This simply isn’t true.

Venting emotions can actually cause them to become more powerful, rather than allowing them to subside or reduce.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t talk to others about what is happening, it’s just that the form it takes shouldn’t be a blast of raw emotion.

4. Rethink your mindset

One way to deal with stress is to change the way you think about stressors.

You can do this by reframing the stressful tasks you have to do.

For example, giving a presentation is stressful but, on the other hand, it’s a chance to demonstrate your expertise to others and to network.

One study on how to beat stress had bankers watching a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ video which suggested that some people do their best work under pressure.

For example, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger landed his stricken airliner on the Hudson River and Winston Churchill successfully led Britain through WWII.

Those who’d seen the ‘stress-is-enhancing’ video did develop a more positive stress mindset. This led to them reporting better performance at work and fewer psychological problems over the subsequent two weeks.

In addition, thinking that stress is enhancing was associated with lower levels of cortisol, a hormone closely associated with the stress response.

In other words, people’s physiological reaction to stress was better when they endorsed the idea that stress is enhancing.

5. Accept what can’t be changed

Sometimes, though, trying to find the upside of a stressful situation can be hard.

Some situations are what they are and there are no ways to fool yourself into thinking about them differently.

In that case it’s better just to accept the situation, rather than fighting it.

Acceptance doesn’t mean it’s right, that you’re happy about it or that you ignore it.

It also doesn’t mean that you give up.

Rather it’s acceptance that something can’t be changed and it is wasted effort trying to work out how it can be changed, or how it could have been different.

6. Keep busy, but not too busy

The problem with feeling anxious and stressed is that it makes you feel less motivated to engage with distracting activities.

When unoccupied, the mind tends to wander, often to anxieties.

One answer is to have a list of activities that you find enjoyable ready in advance. When anxiety hits at an inactive moment, you can go off and do something to occupy your mind.

Try to have things on your list that you know you will enjoy and are easy to get started on.

(A word of caution: being too busy is not a good idea, you want to be occupied, but not creating even more stress for yourself.)

7. Deal with unwanted thoughts

Much of the everyday stress we face results from unwanted thoughts going around in our heads.

They could run from things as simple as “Did I turn off the cooker?” up to persistent worries about the future.

There are a number of techniques to get rid of unwanted thoughts, here are a few:

  • The worry period. Researchers have tried asking those with persistent anxious thoughts to postpone their worrying until a designated 30-minute ‘worry period’. Save up all your worrying for this time and it may ease your mind the rest of the time.
  • Write about it. Writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings may help to reduce recurrent unwanted thoughts.

There are six more in this article on unwanted thoughts.

8. Easy muscle relaxation technique

The most common type of relaxation therapy which psychologist teach may be familiar to you.

It involves mentally going around the muscle groups in your body, first tensing then relaxing each one. It’s as simple as that.

And, with practice, it becomes easier to spot when you are becoming anxious and the muscles are becoming tense.

The next stage is to cut out the tensing phase and move straight to relaxing each muscle.

Next, you learn to associate a certain cue, say thinking ‘be calm’ with a relaxed state.

You then learn to relax really quickly.

Finally you practise your relaxation technique in real-world anxiety-provoking situations.

Read more about relaxation techniques for anxiety.

9. Do a little exercise

One of the best ways of beating stress and anxiety is exercise.

Studies on mice, for example, have shown that exercise reorganises the brain so that it is more resistant to stress (Schoenfeld et al., 2013).

It does this by stopping the neurons firing in the regions of the brain thought to be important in the stress response (the ventral hippocampus).

Studies in humans show that exercise has a relatively long-lasting protective effect against anxiety (Smith, 2013).

Both low and medium intensity exercise have been shown to reduce anxiety.

However, those doing high intensity exercise are likely to experience the greatest reduction in anxiety, especially among women (Cox et al., 2004).

10. Sleep the right way

Stress and anxiety can lead to lost sleep.

So learn the most successful single intervention psychologists use to help people sleep well.

It is called Stimulus Control Therapy (Morin et al., 2006).

You’ll be happy to hear it consists of six very straightforward steps. If you follow these, it should improve your sleep.

Here they are: how to fall asleep fast.

Image credit: Stephen Poff

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 21 July 2014

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License