How to Manage Anxiety & Stress with Mindfulness
This month on social media, we asked the JMB Living Community what they’re struggling with the most that we could delve into and share suggestions and resources. The highest response we got related to stress, anxiety and mental health struggles. As we move through the holiday season and approach a period of time where many people suffer from seasonal depression, I wanted to address mindfully managing mental health.
Even those of us who have not previously struggled with mental health—either clinical, seasonal, or situational—might be experiencing challenges with our mindset, anxiousness, or generating happiness as we continue to live in an era of unprecedented conditions that continues on and is constantly evolving our lifestyle habits and routines.
Leading a joyful, mindful, and balanced life is still possible while experiencing anxiety or mental health struggles. Oftentimes, our mindfulness and mental health have an inverse relationship in which the more mindful we are, the less our mental health negatively impacts our lives. Society as a whole has previously avoided shedding light on how common mental health struggles are; but regardless of if you have a diagnosis, occasionally experience anxiety, or are just looking for ways to improve your daily mindset, mental health challenges are normal, common, and valid.
Mental Health is Wellness
Mental health is a pillar of holistic wellness that can both influence and be influenced by physical health. A common recommendation to manage or improve mental health is to eat healthy and exercise. However, this suggestion overlooks the sometimes uncontrollable factors of mental health such as chemical imbalances and lived experience and tends to be interpreted as completely adjusting your diet to clean eating and engaging in strenuous exercise every day.
An extreme nutritional shift and strict intense workout regimen is not the solution for everyone, but it is a well-known fact that any form of intentional nutrition and activity can assist in improving mental health. You may not need to rework your meal plan or adjust your diet at all, but to make a small stride in contributing to a better mental state, take some time to evaluate your intake and make small adjustments (if necessary) to include more protein, vegetables, or serotonin-producing foods.
The activity aspect does not need to be a high-intensity cardio workout or strength training: activity that can positively impact your mental health can be as simple as a yoga video on YouTube, a guided physical meditation, or a walk around the park or your neighborhood. When we live in extremes, our desired results become unsatisfying and unobtainable if we set unrealistic expectations. Adjust your mental health efforts to be realistic and comfortable for your lifestyle.
Another factor that impacts our mental health is life stressors. If you are struggling with your mental health, take a moment to evaluate stressors in your life and how you can reduce the amount or mindfully navigate them so that they are no longer causes of stress.
It often seems easy to identify something that is causing us stress, but finding a solution or way to minimize its impact can be difficult. If you cannot immediately come up with a tactic or solution, I recommend going back to basics.
The older and busier we get, the easier it is to overlook and forget about foundational problem-solving tools like life skills. Even if we use life skills everyday, it can be easy to forget about how applicable they can be outside of the situations we typically use them in. So, when we’re working on managing and minimizing our stressors, we can revisit our everyday skills and use them to reduce or resolve stress-inducing situations.
Life Skills to Minimize Stress
If you are experiencing stress or if your mental health is negatively impacted by a work situation or a relationship problem, it’s likely that this can be resolved through more in-depth communication. Although you might already be communicating, you can remove the stress aspect of this situation by communicating to an involved party how and why something is causing you stress; if it is because of unrealistic expectations of you on their behalf or an inability to progress on your end because of an internal or external obstacle, let them know and use clear, effective communication to come to a compromise or solution that benefits everyone.
Reflection is a great start for evaluating any of your stressors for potential solutions, but especially so if your mental health is declining with no obvious cause. Sometimes we can experience loss of appetite, temporary insomnia, fatigue, or emotional hypersensitivity without recognizing what triggered it. When you notice symptoms of declining mental health, do what you can to treat the symptom, but also look back or within to identify: any triggers you may have experienced without processing or actively acknowledging, significant events that impact your emotional state, what kind of media you’ve consumed, and any potential stimuli or occurrences that might have impacted your routine and ability to self-regulate. Identifying the root of your current struggle can lead you to seek the right course of action to work through it.
Sometimes the things causing us stress or impacting our mental health have no obvious solution and we have to think outside the box to self-soothe, come up with a temporary solution, or solve a problem. If a stressor has you stuck on how to approach it, use your creativity: stray outside your typical problem-solving methods and 1) look at your strengths 2) think about previous solutions for other things you’ve overcome 3) get inspiration from elsewhere—don’t be afraid to Google or phone a friend!
Not all of our problems begin or manifest internally. Sometimes, being a good friend, confidant, coworker, parent, and family member can become a source of stress as we take on others’ burdens and share in their experiences as a source of comfort and altruism. If you find yourself being frustrated or overwhelmed by other people causing you stress—maybe a coworker is rude or behaves counter-productively, or a friend is sharing heavy information with you—tap into your own empathy. This can increase your own emotional availability and allow you to see and understand these external relationships from a new perspective that inspires you to participate in that dynamic with grace and understanding.
Feeling stressed and overwhelmed can very quickly lead to anxiety, and an over-stimulus of anxiety for an extended period of time can result in depression. If you feel scattered or don’t even know where to begin in improving your mental health, take some time to get organized. Maybe this looks like making lists of everything you need to do, categorized by the different aspects of your life; maybe you would benefit more from a more literal organization of your desk, closet, home, etc. Organization is a helpful skill to apply to identify next steps and establish a routine or behaviors that can prevent stressors from recurring or becoming too much to handle.
Mindfully Managing Anxiety
The difference between anxiety and stress is that lingering stress can result in anxiety, which can manifest as a more urgent and immediate concern that requires different management tactics than stress. Anxiety can be embodied by a wide variety of behaviors (noticeable or not) such as an increased heart rate, shortness of breath, intrusive thoughts, increased nervous tics (like biting your nails or shaking your leg); anxiety manifests so many different ways for so many different people, that sometimes it’s even hard to diagnose when you’re experiencing anxiety until it’s escalated.
While it’s essentially impossible to go through life avoiding situations that make us anxious, what we can do is have coping mechanisms that help us work through our anxiety to recover in the moment and lessen its impact in the future.
5 Ways to Reduce Anxiety
There are many different approaches to grounding. A therapist-recommended method for grounding when experiencing anxiety is called 5-4-3-2-1: take deep breaths and identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Other grounding methods include connecting with the earth in some way physically, meditation, breathing exercises—essentially anything that helps engage your senses and decreases your heart rate.
Find Your Safe Space
Your safe space does not need to be a physical space, but it can also be a tangible room. A safe space can provide solace and comfort when you get home after a high-anxiety day, or it can be a mental state that you access with certain memories and feelings that makes you feel calm and composed.
I’ve previously shared how using the JMB Living Journal can be therapeutic for all of its prompts and inspirational features, but even just taking the time to freeform journal or write down and organize all of your thoughts, anxieties, etc. from each day provides a helpful outlet that prevents you from internalizing everything causing you stress.
Make or Break Your Routine
Mental health can be tedious, which is why this tactic has two options: one way we can easily become overwhelmed is if we are feeling unregulated and have no grounding repetition between each day that allows us time to de-stress and separate our anxieties from our home lives, so we need to make a routine. Sometimes, we feel anxious or can disassociate by moving through the same motions everyday and adhering too strictly to a routine with no specific time for self-care or individual joy. In this case, intentionally break your routine with time for yourself.
If we are over-tired, we are physically more susceptible to experience anxiety. Sleep deprivation and simple over-exertion are both factors for anxiety, so perhaps re-structure your responsibilities or free time to ensure that you are getting more sleep or simple down time that allows you to relax without any obligations.
While this time of year can be especially trying for mental health, I find these approaches are also helpful throughout the year. However, mental health also requires a highly-individualized approach, so adapt any of these tips to work for you based on your lifestyle and what you find relaxing and grounding. I hope you have found this post helpful as I wish you a most peaceful holiday season.