Cope with stress and improve your mood with these research-tested methods
It’s raining, you’re running late, you can’t find a parking space and you’re needed for an important meeting this morning. You can’t control the events that trigger anxiety, but you can harness healthful ways to cope with stress and the negative emotions that can arise.
When you are emotionally well, you can identify, express and manage your full range of feelings. During times in which you feel stressed, down or anxious, you can learn cognitive-behavioral skills that keep the blues and anxiety at bay. These skills are based on components of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is the gold standard evidence-based treatment for mild to moderate anxiety and depression.
As the Dalai Lama once said, “The suffering from a natural disaster we cannot control, but the suffering from our daily disasters we can.” When you learn to recognize the relationship between thinking, feeling and behavior, you can start to turn negative thoughts around to positive ones and feel better, even on that rainy day.
Cognitive-behavioral skills building (CBSB) that helps
Evidence shows that a lot of our emotions come as reactions to our thoughts. Negative thoughts are often followed by feelings of anxiety, stress and depression. Negative thinking also can lead to unhealthful or unhelpful behaviors. This pattern is often referred to as the thinking, feeling and behaving triangle. There’s a way to escape a negative thinking-feeling-behaving triangle, though, through monitoring your own thought patterns and putting a positive spin on them.
What was I thinking?
The first step in CBSB is to learn to catch your automatic negative thoughts. When you feel your mood change for the worse, or when you feel physical symptoms of anxiety such as rapid heartbeat, headache, stomach ache and sweating, ask yourself, “What was I just thinking?” Many negative thoughts become automatic — like any other habit. We don’t choose them; they just happen.
Learn to recognize trigger or activating events.
Let’s say a car cuts you off in traffic. This activating event might provoke a negative automatic thought like, “That careless driver could have just caused a bad accident!” which sends your mood in a downward spiral. When you notice negative automatic thoughts, though, you can turn them around and rewrite them.
Change the script.
The next time a car cuts you off in traffic and you start to have a negative thought, you can turn it into a positive one, such as, “That person may be under a great deal of stress. Thank heaven, I’m safe.” Changing the negative thought around to a positive one buffers you from feeling stressed and anxious.
Practice, practice, practice.
Thirty days is the timeframe it usually takes to make or break a new habit, including the way we think. With time and practice, you can actually change your thinking in response to the stressors in your life, and that will change how you feel. For the next 30 days, try monitoring your thoughts in response to stressors. Keeping a journal of daily stressors, your thought patterns that follow and how you felt and behaved will help you in forming new patterns of thinking. See challenging circumstances as opportunities to practice.
Integrating mindfulness into your daily lifestyle also will help you regulate your emotions. It’s human nature to expend a lot of emotional energy worrying about things in the future that may not happen, or feeling guilty about things in the past we can’t change. However, if we focus on the present, we will worry less and experience less guilt. Try meditation, or ground yourself in the present with an easy exercise: chew a piece of gum and count how many chews it takes to lose its flavor. The book The Present by Spencer Johnson has great insights on staying in the moment.
More than just the blues
If symptoms of anxiety, stress or depression persist for more than two weeks and interfere with daily functioning, don’t wait. Seek help from a qualified therapist or your health care provider.
Evidence for a healthy lifestyle
You may have heard that four healthful behaviors can reduce risk for diabetes, heart disease, back pain and a host of other physical health issues. Evidence shows they also reduce risk of depression by 93 percent and stress by 74 percent.
- Get 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week.
- Limit alcohol use to one drink a day for women, two drinks a day for men.
- Don't smoke.
- Eat a healthful diet including five fruits and vegetables a day. Reduce your risk for chronic disease even further by practicing daily stress reduction and sleeping at least seven hours a night.
Here are some more tips for emotional wellness:
- Break your routine if you are stuck in a rut.
- Manage your energy: build in frequent recovery breaks throughout the day. Sit less, stand more.
- Practice guided imagery to relax and create a positive mood.
- Balance work and personal life: Take time to do things you enjoy.
- Read a positive book five to 10 minutes every morning to start your day off right and shield yourself from negativity during the day.
- Check and monitor your Vitamin D level (it may get low in cloudy months).
- Socialize with family and friends.
- Have an attitude of gratitude — write your blessings down.
- Laugh more often.
- Take five deep breaths when feeling early symptoms of stress. If it helps, think, "I am calm," as you breathe in and, "I am letting all of the stress out," as you breathe out.
- Make a plan for how to deal with your main stressors.
- Talk to someone you trust about how you feel.
- Know your limits. Do not feel guilty when you have to say no.
- Stay aligned with and pursue your dreams and passions.
- Enjoy nature and the outdoors.
- Help others. Compassion for others helps us feel good, too!
About the author
BERNADETTE MAZUREK MELNYK
Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk is the university’s chief wellness officer, vice president for health promotion and College of Nursing dean.