According to data from the World Mental Health Survey, anxiety has emerged as the most prevalent mental health problem across the globe. I recently watched a documentary that aired on CBC, "The Age of Anxiety," and it claimed mental and emotional problems now top physical causes for worker absenteeism.
According to the documentary:
"Anxiety is being called the disease of the 21st century. Everybody seems to be either afflicted -- or knows someone who is. According to the World Health Organization, disorders related to 'dread' are the most prevalent mental illness on the globe at the moment."
But, where is all this anxiety is coming from? I have some ideas (and some suggestions to help!):
1. We think technology is our foe
It's true that fewer of us are clocking a traditional 9-to-5 day any more. Even if we work semi-regular hours in the office, we bring work home with all kinds of digital devices. This is so noticeable that in the last decade we've coined phrases for physical symptoms, like "blackberry thumb." Such ties to work lead many of us to feel like we simply have no down-time.
Suggestion: Make technology your friend
Hold on a minute! Technology was not invented to stress you out. It was really a way of making long processes more efficient... saving us the trouble of being tied to fax machines and snail mail, waiting until tomorrow to find out what happened in the world today. It's also supposed to be fun! And remember, YOU can decide to step away from iPads and Blackberries and just say no.
It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you respond to something quickly you're doing everybody else a favour, when in fact you're setting off a chain reaction... putting the burden back in somebody else's inbox. That may be required of your job sometimes, but it's likely not always the case. Allow yourself to unplug. And make sure you're using technology to make work and life better, not to create another stressor in your own and other's lives.
2. We think these are the worst of times!
We easily fall into the trap of thinking our particular decade or century is distinctly "worse" than the ones that came before. The thing is, every generation says that about the times they're living in!
Suggestion: See the wonderful things we've inherited.
It's easy to forget that past generations also grappled with new technology, with economic crashes, even with conflict that had a profound effect on entire generations. A little reality check here: Remember our grandparents lived through two world wars and a huge economic crash. Process for a moment what hospitals and healthcare looked like for past generations.
There's no denying that our times are also scary; there's economic instability, famine and poverty in many areas of the world. But don't romanticize the past to the detriment of today. Instead, think about what small thing you as an individual can do to make our world better. Volunteer some time, give to worthy causes, care for older generations and nurture future ones.
3. We feel like we're not "where we want to be."
Many people experience a gap between where they are and where they want to be. I sometimes see this in my industry. Young girls have a romantic idea what a "career" should look like and when they're struggling to keep up and meet deadlines, they feel devastated about the reality. Instead of seeing opportunities to improve and grow, many simply crash.
Suggestion: Recognize change can be small and cumulative
What's often needed is a positive attitude, patience and willingness to learn, and grow over time. My suggestions when I see staff becoming overwhelmed are rarely radical... it could be as simple as a way of sorting an inbox, or of allocating time throughout the day to think about the task(s) at hand. But such small changes can also have big results.
Instead of racing to the finish line, try to be happy in the moment and trust that you're headed in the right direction. This can be achieved by committing to small, daily acts that are goal-oriented. But it's also about making room for gentle balance -- like turning off the phone for a certain amount time every day or making space for exercise daily. Such decisions have a huge cumulative effect over time. Remember, life is a marathon, not a sprint.
4. We're confused by too much choice
Choice is something we normally celebrate. But sometimes it can seem we're burdened with too much decision-making. That can lead us to feel like we're chasing our own tails trying to reason or feel our way through all these decisions we have to make. It can even sometimes feel like we're not really programmed to deal with so many options!
Suggestion: Recognize your own path in the maze of choice.
OK, hypothetically there's so much choice. But a lot of it isn't really realistic for most of us. Don't let yourself become distracted by options that are neither desirable nor applicable to you.
Instead, get real about what your dilemmas really are. It's easy to conflate individual problems with universal woes, but a lot of the time that will just make you feel even more stuck. Instead of being distracted by all that's floating around, refocus on your personal needs and wants. Seeing your own path will help you block out the white noise of all those other options.
5. We just feel too much!
I read an article recently that claimed that "stress" is a relatively young word.
"It's hard to imagine people describing their regular days not using the word 'stress.' We hear and read it everywhere nowadays. Yet it is a very young word, 63 years to be exact. Scientist Hans Selye 'discovered' the condition after wondering about it since medical school."
I wonder if we've just become more emotionally fluent -- willing to express more of our feelings and needing new language to set different nuances of feeling apart from each other. Where our Dads might have said "I had a hard day at work" we now have language to describe that in greater detail. Does that mean we're experiencing a worse day than our Dads did, or are we simply better at describing it?
Suggestion: Talk it out!
We can decide to use that emotional fluency to our advantage. After all, the "talking cure" has helped so many people overcome anxiety, fear and confusion. Talk to your partner, your friends or professional therapists. Odds are there's nothing you can throw at them that they won't relate to! They may even offer some sage advice.
Remember, the one advantage we have is that we live in a time when we're all more fluent in feelings talk and better equipped to help each other. So don't be afraid to ask. Talk to someone that will provide positive thought...so many people provide negative feedback which makes us more anxious. And remember, no matter why you're feeling anxious, above all, know you're not alone.
Talking to a close family or friend was the most popular way to deal with stress in the survey, and this social support is a tried-and-true stress-buster, experts say. Not only is it comforting, a strong social network may actually <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921311/" target="_blank">ward off mental illness on a genetic level</a>, according to a 2007 review. Talking to someone who can sympathize can also help normalize the stressful experiences, says Bourdeau. "Someone who is able to say, 'I've experienced that too' can make stress more manageable," she tells HuffPost. Plus, just hearing yourself talk through what's bothering you helps begin the problem-solving process, she says. Just make sure to <a href="http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/manage-stress.aspx" target="_blank">talk to the right person</a>, writes the American Psychological Association. If you're stressed about a family matter at the moment, calling home may not be the best solution.
Breathing deeply <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/29/sleep-stress-bedtime-breathing-video-lisa-belkin_n_3180521.html" target="_blank">might sound trivial in the face of the greater challenges of the day</a>, but there's a reason 55 percent of survey respondents say it's how they handle stress. A few deep breaths tell your body that it's time to chill out. "It's physiologically impossible to be both stressed and relaxed at the same time," says J. Kip Matthews, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Athens, Georgia, and vice president of AK Counseling & Consulting, Inc. Deep breathing induces the body's physiological relaxation response -- the heart rate will slow, the blood pressure will drop -- which overrides the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/19/body-stress-response_n_2902073.html" target="_blank">fight-or-flight stress response</a> you'd been experiencing before. As the brain realizes this calming response is kicking in, it becomes increasingly easier to relax, he says.
Fifty-four percent of stressed-out people said they watch TV or a movie at home to deal. Both can certainly act as a break from paying the bills or a big work project and help you decompress. "Sometimes life presents stresses we can't do anything about," says Haight, "but we <em>can</em> provide distraction from it for ourselves." However, says Bourdeau, TV time may encourage you to completely <em>avoid</em> what's stressing you. A few minutes of your favorite show <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/31/procrastination-productivity_n_2584774.html" target="_blank">can quickly become an entire episode</a>, which, before you know it, suddenly becomes two, and you're up against your work deadline. "Everything in moderation really needs to be applied here," says Matthews. Plus, if your show or movie of choice falls into a stressful genre, like crime, you may find your mind further agitated and overstimulated, says Bourdeau, leaving you only with <em>more</em> difficulty relaxing.
Taking a nap or sleeping in general earned a nod from 53 percent of people. Catching a few winks <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/31/procrastination-productivity_n_2584774.html" target="_blank">may provide a better mental check out than some time in front of the TV</a>. Nappers -- when they stick to just 20 or 30 minutes of shut-eye -- awaken feeling <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/11/nap-benefits-national-napping-day_n_2830952.html" target="_blank">more alert, creative and productive</a>. "A 20-minute break in the day can reset your outlook for the day," says Haight. However, if you're already experiencing difficult falling or staying asleep at night, it's best to skip a nap in favor of another stress-busting tactic, says Bourdeau.
It's not surprising given the pressure and stress we can feel in the presence of a large group of people that many of us feel taking some time alone is a good way to handle stress. "When we're around other people, we're getting more information and more stimulation," says Matthews. "Some down time can [help you] recharge for a bit." However, if down time leaves you more likely to ruminate on what's bothering you, you might want to try a solitary relaxing activity like exercising, playing an instrument or writing, says Bourdeau. "Alone time spent with meditation, positive thinking, self-validation and positive coping thoughts can be a really helpful way to get away from the negativity," says Bourdeau. Alone time might also take the form of some of the other answers on the list, like taking a bath, getting a massage or even meditating, which, while only recommended by 13 percent of people, has <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/mindfulness-meditation-benefits-health_n_3016045.html" target="_blank">known relaxation benefits</a>. Even just <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/24/easy-stress-relief-5-ways_n_3017084.html#slide=2300229" target="_blank">a few mindful minutes can make a big difference</a>.
Anyone who has popped in headphones on a crowded subway car knows that music is a great way to steal a few minutes of alone time, but the 53 percent of people who say they try this to deal with stress are onto another benefit. Listening to music is generally <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/09/music-and-health-11-ways-body-mind_n_1413241.html#slide=854657" target="_blank">associated with more positive feelings</a> -- as long as it's music you like! "I'll have my patients make a playlist of songs that put them in a positive mood where they feel like [after listening], everything's more manageable," says Bourdeau. It's not one-size-fits-all, however. It may take some discovery to narrow in on the type of music that works best for you, says Matthews.
Is there anything exercise doesn't help?! Forty six percent of people say they work out to deal with stress, and there's research to back up that move. Thanks to those feel-good endorphins released when you break a sweat, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/09/stress-relief-tools-old-fashioned-remedies_n_3022241.html" target="_blank">exercising is a guaranteed stress-buster</a>, even if you only get a few minutes in. It's also a way to take back the reins, says Haight. For the duration of your workout, <em>you</em> are in control, even if the stressors around you are threatening to take over, she says. Surprisingly, only 8 percent of people say they do yoga when they're stressed, despite the practice's calming reputation. But whatever your preferred method of breaking a sweat, "it's a great way to take that negative energy and channel it into something you can feel good about," says Bourdeau.
The 46 percent of people who say they eat to deal with stress have to be careful. There <em>are</em> a few <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/05/healthy-food-fight-stress_n_2617644.html" target="_blank">foods known for their natural stress-reducing powers</a>, like leafy greens and oatmeal, but we're more often reaching for <a href="http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200311/stress-and-eating" target="_blank">rich, fatty, sweet foods when we're stressed</a> -- it's part of the body's attempt to protect us from danger, according to Psychology Today. Those carbohydrate-laden sweets trigger a release of serotonin in the brain that makes us feel better in the short term, says Matthews, but reaching for the cookies too often can mean trouble. "People who are [stress eating] in general don't feel positive when they're done eating," says Bourdeau. Luckily, a few simple mindfulness tricks can help turn that stress snacking around. Try being <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/12/huffpost-stress-less-chal_n_3072795.html" target="_blank">thankful for your food</a>, or at least thinking about what you're eating while you're eating it and what it's doing for your body, says Bourdeau. Other tricks may help you break the food-as-comfort cycle for good, says Haight. "Instead of getting a Snickers bar from the vending machine, take a walk around the block first," she says. "Then decide if you still want that Snickers bar."
The 41 percent of people who said they <a href="http://www.wholeliving.com/133849/walking-stress-relief" target="_blank">take a walk to relax</a> benefit from a form of feel-good exercise, even though you don't have to walk briskly to reap relaxation benefits. But taking a walk can also provide some time alone and (hopefully!) some time in nature, too. Spending some time being active outside has been shown to <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23467965" target="_blank">wash away feelings of frustration</a> and over-stimulation. And don't be surprised if at the end of your walk you've come up with the solution to what was bugging you. "Stepping out of a situation and giving yourself time to think things over in a physical way can really clear your head and get your creative juices flower so that you can problem solve a little bit better," says Haight.
Laughter really is good medicine, at least when it comes to stress. The 34 percent of people who say they watch a funny video to de-stress not only reap the relaxing benefits of a good laugh, but also avoid the downward spiral of a too-long break like a TV marathon or an entire movie. A good laugh releases those same feel-good endorphins as exercise, and also <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-relief/SR00034" target="_blank">improves circulation and muscle relaxation</a>, according to the Mayo Clinic. "We hold a lot of stress in our faces," says Matthews, "so anything you can do to change that grimaced look can relieve that tension."
"Imagine I'm somewhere else" is a tactic utilized by 31 percent of people. The power of the mind to escape stress shouldn't be underestimated. Imagining yourself in a more relaxing setting, say in a hammock on a beach, can help you focus solely on relaxation, says Bourdeau. The goal of this type of visual imagery practice (essentially a form of meditation, although survey respondents may not have identified it as such) is to then bring that vacation feeling back to your real life stress. You're even likely to feel physical changes from this "mental vacation," says Matthews. When stressed, the blood flows to larger muscles that, in the face of real danger, would help us run away, often leaving hands and feet feeling cold and clammy, he says. If you imagine yourself sitting on a warm beach with your feet in the sand, you'll find the blood is soon redirected and warming up your extremities, creating that relaxation response that overrides stress.
Hopefully the 30 percent of people who say they shop to handle stress have budgeted the cash for such an excursion. "Finances are a big source of stress right now, and something [many people] feel is out of their control," says Matthews. Shopping might feel to some like one way to exercise control over money, but if you're spending beyond your budget, shopping will likely only make your worries grow, warns Bourdeau. Also, believing that shopping will lower your stress means you're looking for a solution outside of yourself to make you feel better, she says. Instead, she suggests thinking, "How can <em>I</em> make myself feel better, inside and out?"
Playing with a pet is a go-to stress reducer for 27 percent of people. Fido and Fluffy are a different kind of social support, but still a valuable network. "Who else greets us so affectionately when we walk through the door?" says Matthews. Research shows that owning a pet lowers levels of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/19/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800.html" target="_blank">stress hormones</a>, possibly due to an <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/pets-stress_b_3077521.html" target="_blank">increase in oxytocin</a>, the hormone commonly cited for its role in love and bonding. Plus, if you <em>have</em> to take Fido for a walk, not only will you feel good by staying active, you might benefit from the feeling of doing something nice for someone else, says Bourdeau. "They don't talk back, they don't invalidate you, they just want attention and love and affection and they give it back in return," she says.
Nearly a quarter of people said they pour themselves a mug of tea to deal with stress. The act of making, pouring and drinking the tea may simply be a relaxing and solitary ritual that you establish as part of your relaxation routine, says Haight, or it might be something unique to tea responsible for its calming effects. A 2006 study found that black tea drinkers were less stressed in general and could relax faster when they <em>were</em> stressed than people given a tea substitute. And green tea boasts a particular <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/05/healthy-food-fight-stress_n_2617644.html" target="_blank">amino acid suggested to lower anxiety</a>. However, too much caffeine may only exacerbate a racing heart or nervous jitters, warns Matthews. "We need to avoid anything that's going to compound anxiety," he says.
Interestingly, the same number of people who say they turn to tea say they turn to alcohol to lower stress. But what many think will be a relaxing nightcap actually <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2266962/" target="_blank">stimulates production of the stress hormone cortisol</a>, creating a cycle of <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110715163216.htm" target="_blank">feeling stress, wanting to drink and then wanting to drink more</a>. "If you're using alcohol to de-stress, you need to be cautious," says Bourdeau. "You don't feel in control of your relaxation, and can easily drink to excess." Farther down the list were some similarly risky behaviors, including going out to clubs or bars, smoking cigarettes and using marijuana. Although fewer people say these are methods they use to deal with anxiety, the experts stress the importance of avoiding behaviors like these. "These are only short-term at best," says Haight. When the effects of alcohol, nicotine or marijuana wear off, your sources of stress will still remain, she says. "It's like putting a bandaid on a gaping wound."
Follow Natasha Koifman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/natashankpr