Sydney Learning

Learn to manage stress and anxiety

Avoid feeling overwhelmed and overloaded. Learn mindfulness and other skills to manage these emotions.

Does stress and anxiety impact on your studies or your personal life? Are anxious and worrying thoughts making it hard for you to concentrate?

We all experience some level of stress at different times in our lives in response to challenging and stressful situations and events that are encountered. In small doses stress can help keep us energised, motivated and equipped to deal with what confronts us such as preparing for an exam or a job interview. Once the stressful situation passes, the stress gradually subsides. However if stress is prolonged it may impact on your study and/or your relationships with others.

Learning to manage stress and early signs of anxiety will assist you to manage challenges without feeling overloaded and overwhelmed.

How could learning to manage stress and anxiety improve my life?
Relaxation Exercises
Mindfulness Skills
Cognitive Strategies
Exercise
Top Ten Tips

How could learning to manage stress and anxiety improve my life?

Learning to manage stress and anxiety well has lots of potential benefits. You can become less reactive to the inevitable stressors of life as they arise, feel calmer, and improve your general sense of well-being.

What happens when we are stressed and anxious: tuning the fight or flight response

Have you heard of the flight or fight response? This is actually the body’s natural response to stress with the nervous system preparing us to either fight or run away from a dangerous or challenging situation. In evolutionary times this would enable us to run very fast from a predator but in modern times there are fewer real life dangers. In our modern urban environments it appears as if our minds often process threat based on experiencing ourselves as psychologically vulnerable, i.e. not good enough, not liked, not valued, not successful etc.

So although the flight or fight physiological response is designed to assist us in dealing with situations where danger is imminent, it can also rise in response to relatively minor mishaps or stressors, such as rushing to classes, writing a difficult essay or obtaining a disappointing mark for an assignment.

As a result we feel on edge and even anxious, as though something really bad is about to occur. Such a reaction however, is really not appropriate or necessary for the situation that we are facing. We might also react with frustration or anger creating difficulties in our relationships with others. We (and those around us) consequently suffer unnecessarily. There are definitely more effective and energy efficient ways than these of dealing with stress.

How does stress and anxiety affect our bodies?

Some of the physical changes that occur during the flight or fight response include:

  • increase in heart rate.
  • increase in blood pressure.
  • increased breathing rate.
  • increased blood flow to the muscles.
  • muscle tension.
  • decreased blood flow to important organs.

All of these changes put unnecessary strain on our bodies and if allowed to continue, stress can impact the immune system making us more prone to illness. So managing stress and anxiety is of first and foremost importance for the prevention of stress-related illnesses and the maintenance of a healthily functioning body.

How does stress and anxiety affect our minds?

The flight or fight response also results in an increased alertness of the mind and if stress continues this can result in such things as:

  • worry.
  • fear.
  • sleeping difficulties.
  • difficulties concentrating.
  • irritability.
  • negative thinking.

If these symptoms arise, they can be very disruptive and can possibly affect study, work and relationships. Managing stress and anxiety is therefore important to optimal functioning in everyday life.

Improved quality of life

Managing stress and anxiety can improve our life in many ways, from improved health and feelings of wellbeing, reduction in distress and anxiety, better concentration, improved work productivity, improved sleep, feelings of being in control and improved relationships with friends and family. So lets get started.

What skills do I need to learn to manage stress and anxiety?

There are many skills that can be learned and these include:

  • Relaxation Exercises.
  • Mindfulness Skills.
  • Cognitive Strategies.
  • Exercise.

Relaxation Exercises

A really good place to start is by practicing relaxation exercises. Such exercises bring about the relaxation response which is the opposite of the flight or fight response described earlier. Some of the changes that occur during the relaxation response are:

  • decrease in heart rate.
  • decrease in blood pressure.
  • slower and deeper breathing.
  • relaxed muscles.

Regular practice of relaxation exercises produces a number of benefits including improved concentration and memory, better academic performance, reduction in anxiety and worry, and less reactivity to stressors. There are many different types of relaxation exercises and we will be talking about some of the most commonly used ones here.

Breathing exercises

Did you know that when our breathing rate increases during the stress response, it triggers physiological changes in our bodies? Our bodies actually need a balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen and when we begin to breath quickly we take in more oxygen than we need. This then upsets the balance, triggering a number of chemical changes producing symptoms such as dizziness, light-headedness and confusion. In turn, these symptoms can lead to feelings of anxiety and even panic in response to stressful situations. Breathing exercises are designed to help you slow down your breathing and so reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

A breathing exercise is available to listen to and is also outlined in an information sheet from the Centre for Clinical Interventions. This needs to be practiced regularly so that you get skilled in bringing about the relaxation response. Such breathing exercises can then at times when you are feeling stressed or anxious such as before you go into an exam or give a presentation.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Another type of relaxation exercise is called progressive muscle relaxation. Remember how the stress response can lead to muscle tension? Progressive muscle relaxation will help you to see the difference between tension and relaxation in the body and help you to release the tension from your muscles leading to a state of relaxation.

The general method for practicing progressive muscle relaxation is to tense and then relax all of the main muscle groups in your body. The Centre for Clinical Interventions has a useful information sheet on progressive muscle relaxation which outlines the procedure for practicing this exercise. A guided progressive muscle relaxation exercise is also available.

Mindfulness Skills

Mindfulness is a skill in learning to focus, or be mindful of what is happening from moment to moment with a non-judging attitude. Once we learn how to do this, we can begin to deal with many of the causes of everyday stress such as anxiety provoking thoughts about the past or future and any other stressful phenomena such as time pressure, frustration, disappointment and distraction.

Practice mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness can be achieved through a formal meditation practice where we train to be aware of present moment events such as our breath, body sensations or external events such as sounds. Use this guided mindfulness exercise.

Dealing with thoughts when meditating

It is important to note that when we begin mindfulness training it is not uncommon to have thoughts which distract us from our present moment awareness. In order to deal with this, we simply observe the thought in a non-judging and objective way and quickly switch our attention back to the focus of attention. In this way we train our minds to stay in the present moment and learn to simply accept and move on from distracting and sometimes stressful thoughts.

Mindfulness in everyday life

Mindfulness can also be practiced in daily life as one moves from one activity to the next, becoming aware or mindful of one’s surroundings or what one is doing in the present moment such as walking, eating or routine tasks like cleaning the house.

Cognitive Strategies

Sometimes when we are stressed and anxious we notice that our thinking can get distorted. We might start to worry too much about even small things and this can make us feel more stressed and anxious and affect our concentration. The way we think affects the way we feel and it is helpful to learn some cognitive strategies to bring about more realistic and positive thinking.

A simple exercise to use to challenge your worrying thoughts is to examine:

  • The evidence to support the thought.
  • The evidence to refute the thought.
  • And then come up with a reasoned conclusion.

You will probably find that in most cases you will not find any evidence to support the worrying thought and once you come up with a more rational thought you will feel calmer and less anxious. As you may have been in the habit of worrying for a long time, changing these thoughts will take time and practice. Keep persisting as it will pay off in the long term.

For more self-help material on dealing with anxious and worrying thoughts go to the Centre for Clinical Intervention website for a comprehensive workbook which you can work through at your own pace.

Exercise

Exercise such as walking, swimming, playing a sport, going to the gym, or yoga can help relax the body and mind. The key is to exercise regularly. Sometimes exercising with a friend
or sporting or exercise group can help keep up motivation to exercise and the social aspect of the activity can also contribute to managing stress.

Top Ten Tips

Ten tips for learning to manage stress and anxiety

  • Practice relaxation exercises.
  • Exercise.
  • Eat well.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Reduce alcohol and drugs.
  • Practice mindfulness to let go of worries.
  • Spend time with friends.
  • Ensure a study/life balance.
  • Use cognitive strategies to deal with stressful thoughts.
  • Engage in enjoyable and fun activities.