According to Gallup's annual Global Emotions Report, a survey that measures individual’s positive and negative experiences worldwide, people are experiencing higher levels of stress around the world than ever before. In this 2018 survey, 55% of the American respondents stated that they felt a significant amount of stress. Out of the 143 countries studied, this came in as one of the highest rates of stress and beat the global average of 35%.(1) In 2021, 42% of adults worldwide said they experienced a lot of stress and worry on a daily basis.(1) In 2022, the American Psychological Association (APA) published the results from the ‘Stress in America’ poll, finding that 65% of Americans are stressed about money and the economy, 69% of Americans fear that World War III is right around the corner, and 87% Americans are stressed due to rising inflation.(2) Struggling with these many challenges has resulted in 27% of Americans reporting that most days their stress levels are inhibiting their ability to function.(3) According to APA President Anita Everett, M.D., “This poll shows U.S. adults are increasingly anxious, particularly about health, safety, and finances.”(4) However, instead of just talking about how stressed we are with no way to fix it, let’s unpack the experience of stress and anxiety.
What is the difference between stress and anxiety?
Stress and anxiety are an inevitable part of the human experience and while some stress is normal, chronic stress and anxiety can be detrimental to a person’s health and quality of life. While stress and anxiety share similar physical and emotional symptoms, such as tension, headaches, uneasiness, excessive worry, body pain, high blood pressure, and loss of sleep, their origins are different. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress “generally is a response to an external cause” and often “goes away once the situation is resolved.”(5) Alternatively, anxiety “generally is internal” and is the body’s reaction to stress. Anxiety typically “involves a persistent feeling of apprehension or dread that doesn't go away… even if there is no immediate threat.”(5) If anxiety doesn’t eventually subside, it can interfere with the person’s life and ability to function.
Before stress and anxiety are completely villainized, it is important to understand their significance. On an evolutionary level, anxiety is extremely useful as it signals impending danger and cues the “fight-or-flight” response allowing an individual to escape, avoid, or defend themselves against a perceived threat. Even in situations that are not life-threatening but potentially life-altering, anxiety supercharges your mental capacity to work through choices before deciding. Without some anxiety, humans would be completely vulnerable and unaware of the dangers and opportunities surrounding them. Thinking of anxiety in these terms may foster an appreciation for this emotion. However, too much stress and anxiety can be problematic, so examining how stress or anxiety are influencing personal experiences may be a critical first step in finding an effective treatment plan.
Reducing Stress and Anxiety
While everyone has different activation responses to stress and anxiety, one thing these emotions have in common is they live in the person’s mind. Similarly, anxiety is often caused by staying trapped in the mind; “if you’re in your head, you’re dead.” Anxiety is characterized by excessive negative thoughts about the future, imagining scenarios, playing out possible outcomes, and worrying about “what ifs” or “if onlys.” As Stoic philosopher of Ancient Rome, Seneca, said, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”(6) These anxious thoughts are rarely based on real evidence, facts, or an actual threat.
1. Face the “What Ifs” head on
Our brains are programmed to consider the worst-case scenarios to help us avoid danger. These thoughts can help ascertain information or review potential scenarios to make the best decision. The problem is not the thought itself, but it lies in not answering the questions realistically. By not setting a realistic mindset we give the fearful thoughts more power. Facing the “What ifs” and truly grappling with the underlying question can reduce anxiety and overwhelm.8 For example, when you realize that you are going over and over the what-if’s and are experiencing spiraling thoughts with excessive worry, pause. Ask yourself: What is the worst-case scenario here?
For example, if you’re worried about losing your job, face the scenario as if it is happening. Ask: Okay, what if I do lose my job? What will happen after? What steps could I take if I do lose my job to get another job? While I still have my job, what steps can I take to get ahead of this? What can I do to prevent this outcome?
Make yourself a game plan. Put away your phone and break out a pen and paper. Write out your answers to the questions you keep asking yourself. Set up a protocol for if you do lose your job, the scary thoughts will become less ominous.
2. Find What is in Your Control
When you’re feeling a lot of stress and anxiety it is easy to stop thinking logically. One of the easiest ways to reduce anxiety is to separate the things you can control from the things you can’t control. Break out the pen and paper again and write out a list. Label each item as inside or outside your control. Once you identify what is not in your control, work to stop worrying about it. If nothing can be done to change the circumstance, the person, or the way an event plays out, then it does not deserve your time or energy. Instead, you can use your creativity and resources to focus on what is within your immediate control. From there, you can take action to create alternative conditions.(6)
3. Look For Evidence
Your thoughts cannot always be trusted. Many times, thoughts are not based in reality, they are based on an incomplete thesis. Our brains attempt to fill in the blanks when we don’t have the full story about a situation, again a product of our evolution. Stop making assumptions or guessing. Instead, take a brutally honest inventory of the facts.
For example, a friend hasn’t reached out in a while, but they used to call each week. It may be easy to think the friend is mad at you and doesn’t want to be friends anymore. However, the only fact is that the friend hasn’t called. You are giving the situation its meaning with no supporting evidence. So instead of jumping to conclusions, consider alternatives. Use evidence to strengthen or refute the internal narrative. See what is real and stop adding your own interpretations.(7)
4. Change Your Perception
Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, a leader in the field of stress mastery, explains that stress has everything to do with perception. She defines stress as the “physical and mental reaction” to what the individual “perceives is happening.”(6) This is not to say that there aren’t very real stressors, hardship, pain, failure, and uncertainty, but suffering is not synonymous with stress or the stressor. While stress may be an inevitable part of life, continuous suffering is a choice. Perception is how we see and make sense of the world around us. It is how we make meaning of what we experience. We have to take an active role in filtering out fearful perceptions and expectations. An obstacle is neither good nor bad, it has no vendetta against you. If you can keep yourself from attaching emotions and subjective thinking to an event the better off, you’ll be. Seneca, explained it perfectly when he said, “You have power over your mind not outside events, realize this and you will find strength.” Take 5 or 10 minutes and meditate. Learn to control your thoughts and perceptions of an experience. By doing so you will end up changing your emotional reaction as well.
5. Take Action and Get Active
Inaction causes fear to fester. “Action is the solution and the cure to our predicaments,” says Ryan Holiday.(6) If you can put anxiety into action, you can reclaim your life. Start by identifying the anxiety. Then test the reality of the anxious thoughts. Finally, devise a simple plan with a few clear steps. Don’t try to plan out everything, as this might compound the overwhelm. Find 3 little steps that will help relieve the stress and complete them.
Anxiety can also be reduced by practicing deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, mindfulness, daily meditations, and journaling.(8) Finally, if sitting still doesn’t do the trick, get out of your head, and into your body. Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress and anxiety. When you exercise, the brain releases endorphins, a natural painkiller and mood booster.(9) When done consistently, it can improve a person's mood overall, while reducing anxiety and depression. One study found that meditation combined with aerobic exercise reduces stress and rumination.(10)
One mantra to keep in mind is by Count Alexander Rostov from the novel A Gentleman in Moscow; “If a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them.” Get out there and master your circumstances!
1. Ray, Julie, Americans' stress, worry and anger intensified in 2018. Gallup, 2019. https://news.gallup.com/poll/249098/americans-stress-worry-anger-intensified-2018.aspx Accessed 13 January 2023.
2. American Psychological Association, Stress in America 2022: Concerned for the future, beset by inflation, 2022. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2022/concerned-future-inflation Accessed 13 January 2023.
3. American Psychological Association, More than a quarter of U.S. adults say they’re so stressed they can’t function, 2019. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2022/10/multiple-stressors-no-function Accessed 13 January 2023.
4. American Psychiatric Association, Americans say they are more anxious; Baby Boomers report greatest Increase in Anxiety, 2018. https://www.psychiatry.org/news-room/news-releases/americans-say-they-are-more-anxious-baby-boomers Accessed 13 January 2023.
5. National Institute for Mental Health, I’m so stressed out! Fact sheet, 2023. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/so-stressed-out-fact-sheet Accessed 14 January 2023.
6. Holiday, Ryan, Dealing with stress: 12 proven strategies for stress relief from stoicism, 2021. https://dailystoic.com/stress-relief/ Accessed 14 January 2023.
7. Maenpaa, Jenny. (2022, May 11). A psychotherapist shares the 3 exercises she uses every day to ‘stop obsessing about the future’, 2022. https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/11/psychotherapist-shares-exercises-she-uses-every-day-to-stop-feeling-a nxious-obsessing-about-the-future.html Accessed 14 January 2023.
8. University of Nevada, Stress and anxiety management skills, 2023. https://www.unr.edu/counseling/resources/self-help/stress-and-anxiety-management-skills Accessed 14 January 2023.
9. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Physical activity reduces stress, 2022. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/stress/physical-activity-re duces-st Accessed 15 January 2023.
10. Lavadera, P., Millon, E. M., and Shors, T. J., MAP train my brain: Meditation combined with aerobic exercise reduces stress and rumination while enhancing quality of life in medical students. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2020. 26(5), 418-423, 2020. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/acm.2019.0 Accessed 15 January 2023.