We’re living in the age of anxiety. People now report being more worried about stress and anxiety than any other heath concern, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Sounds like it’s time to find a way out of the overwhelming stress spiral.
Imagine this: You’re at the doctor’s office for an annual checkup. Excitedly, you point out that you’ve lost the weight that you both knew you needed to drop.
“That’s wonderful,” the doctor says, adjusting the stethoscope around her neck and drawing up a stool near your own chair. “But we’ve got a bigger heath concern than your weight.”
“We do?” you ask, puzzled.
The doctor nods, “Your stress levels are out of control.”
You swallow. Sure, you answered on the higher end of the scale on the stress-related questionnaire your doctor went over with you. But everybody is stressed these days. And stress isn’t that bad . . . is it?
According to the Health + Wellness 2019 study put out by the Hartman Group, stress and anxiety have overtaken weight as the primary medical concern for Americans.
“Sixty-three percent of consumers say they are treating or preventing anxiety or stress compared to 61 percent who are treating or preventing being overweight,” says David Wright, senior manager of marketing at the Hartman Group. “Weight is still seen as a key indicator of overall health, but mental/emotional health is becoming a more prominent aspect of how consumers understand health and wellness,” Wright explains.
With more than six out of 10 people reporting their greatest health need is to manage or reduce their feelings of stress, how do we begin to tackle this health crisis? The first place to start is right at home, in your own life. Here’s where you can begin:
Identify what is really underneath your stress.
Many people assume life would be better “if only.” If only that coworker wasn’t such a grouchy bear. If only your boss saw your potential. If only your spouse appreciated you more. If only you’d chosen a different career, lived in a different part of town, or were a different age.
These and similar thoughts are merely masks, hiding the true issue, says Diana Calvo, a life coach and psychotherapist based in Boulder, Colorado. You have to recognize what is really upsetting you, rather than avoiding it or trying to distract yourself, advises Calvo, who specializes in helping clients deal with stress and anxiety.
“More often than not, feelings of stress and anxiety show up because a separate, uncomfortable feeling is trying to express itself,” says Calvo. “And we desperately don’t want to feel it.” Stress or anxiety is a protective mechanism that is trying to keep us unaware of those painful truths, such as disappointment in life or grief over a doomed relationship or the imminent death of a loved one.
“Engage in a daily practice of noticing your inner experience and your reaction to it,” says Calvo. “For example, if you feel angry, notice your dislike of feeling angry, what you want to do to try to make it go away, and what it feels like in your body.” Once you begin to pay attention to your true feelings, you’ll be able to address them instead of just trying to bury them.
If you discover that you have a long list of nagging worries buried under your stress, start a “Worry List” to get all the stressors out of your head and onto paper. You can turn it into an action list and cross them off as you do what you need to do to resolve them. And for the things you can’t control—you can turn those into a prayer list.
Minimize or eliminate whatever stressors you can.
Learning to deal with stress and anxiety is key, but there are also ways to reduce the amount of stress in your life. For instance, do you find yourself serving on every board or committee you’re asked to? Have you signed up to provide 50 cupcakes to the school bake sale . . . even though you have a big report due at work the same week?
Reducing stressors, when possible, begins with setting boundaries around yourself and your time. Sure, it would be wonderful to help with your son’s snack bar at Little League, but that’s the same time of the year that you’re overloaded at your accounting firm with tax season.
Your day is literally peppered with opportunities to do more, have more, be more. It can be exhausting just thinking about all the options. This discomfort with scaling back and saying “no” to people and opportunities has even led to the pop culture idea of FOMO (fear of missing out). But sometimes, for the sake of your health, it’s better to miss out on an activity—and the stress that comes with it.
Laugh at it.
There’s a reference in the Bible that says a wise woman can “laugh at the days to come” (Proverbs 31:25). Who can do that? Only people who are relaxed, confident, and spiritual, and who can find the humor in situations . . . even stressful ones.
Laughter is healing. No one knows this better than comedian Charles Marshall, a humorous motivational speaker, who has been making people laugh for a living for more than 25 years. Marshall started out as a musician, which had been a lifelong dream. But a health issue destroyed his musical career, leaving Marshall devastated.
“It was a soul-crushing, crying-myself-to-sleep experience,” he says. “My whole identity was as a musician. It was all I’d ever wanted to do.”
From that setback, though, Marshall found a new calling: making people laugh and providing them with motivation in the process. After years of stand-up comedy, he is now a sought-after keynote speaker, author, and columnist.
“I come from the perspective that humor is the antidote to life’s pain,” Marshall says. “Comedian Steve Allen once said that tragedy plus time equals comedy. I’ve found that sometimes when people run into something painful, it’s hard for them to laugh at first. What’s most rewarding in my job is when people come up to me after an event saying things like, ‘This is the first time I’ve laughed since my husband passed away six months ago, or since I was diagnosed with cancer three months ago.’”
As well as being an effective healer for grief-stricken hearts, humor is also useful in helping people de-stress and combat anxiety. Looking for humor and adding laughter to your life is key, says Marshall. “The great thing is that humor is a choice. We can be proactive,” Marshall says. “Most people think humor is a circumstance that happens to them, but we can seek it out.”
How? Marshall recommends starting simply: subscribe to humor channels on YouTube, or follow funny people on Facebook. And seek out upbeat friends to spend time with.
Don’t let work overtake your
Another way to beat back stress? Keep work in its proper place, and don’t give it more real estate than it deserves in your life.
“I’m all for owning your job and being present in your career, but at the same time, this is your only life,” reminds Marshall. If you don’t set aside time for other things in life, you’ll miss out and be stressed out. “I take a daily mini vacation. I like tea, so after lunch I try to just have a cup of tea and talk with my wife. Even when—especially when—the roof is caving in on me, it’s good to just have some human connection. We try to do that in the evenings as well.”
Joy Choquette is a freelance writer based in Vermont.