How to cope when you're feeling anxious or stressed

How to cope when you're feeling anxious or stressed

Life can be unpredictable. When uncertainty hits, it’s only natural for you, and your kids, to feel anxious. Here, experts share their top strategies for staying grounded.

Woman on her phone feeling stressed and anxious

Worrying about the future every now and then is a normal part of life. Questions such as,“Will I do well on this interview? Can I pay this bill on time? What will things look like a year from now? Is my friend mad at me? Maybe I should have said something differently in that scenario?” may cross our minds. But for some people, these occasional “what if” scenarios can become relentless, leading to chronic anxiety and stress.

On top of everything else in our lives, colder weather and shorter days can bring on the winter blues – feelings of fatigue and sadness. And this can make it even harder to handle the unknown thoughts this time of year.

This can be a big problem. “Much of our anxiety seems to come down to uncertainty,” says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and owner of Annville Psychological Services in Annville, Pennsylvania. “But certainty is only a feeling, not a fact. We can’t ever feel 100 percent sure of anything. The coronavirus outbreak made these feelings so explicit — but uncertainty is always part of life.” 

If you’re struggling with persistent anxiety, you’re not alone. Take a deep breath and follow this advice from mental health experts. 

Stay-calm strategy #1: Have a plan 

Worry is the ability to generate negative outcomes in our minds, explains Catherine Pittman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. 

“Worry was very helpful for our ancestors,” she says. “Let’s say they saw a tiger wandering around. Some of them might think, Oh, that’s interesting, [and] then carry on with whatever they were doing. Those people were less likely to survive. But the people who worried about the tiger tended to spring into action, or they might stay up all night watching out for the tiger. We are the descendants of the worriers. We have worry circuits in our brains, but fortunately, we also have planning circuits.” 

So pick a positive activity in advance that can help you replace the worry — and avoid the anxiety, says Pittman. 

The plan doesn’t need to be perfect. You just need to know what you’ll do when the worry creeps up: Pick up a pencil and doodle. Go for a quick walk. Call a friend. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it’s something positive. 

Stay-calm strategy #2: Fight fear with facts  

There is so much misinformation on the internet, from unfounded conspiracy theories to outright scams. And all of it seems custom-designed to ramp up your anxiety. Next time you find yourself going down an electronic rabbit hole, try to pause, take a deep breath, and step away from your device. 

If your worry has to do with a health issue, the internet can be a breeding ground of unfounded worries and, often, misguided self-diagnoses. Instead, “pick one trusted source of information, like the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or the WHO [World Health Organization], and stick with it,” advises Smedley. And then set your mind at ease by talking with your health care team.

Stay-calm strategy #3: Go on a news diet 

Everyone is on news overload. Keeping up with the latest information could turn into a full-time job. “But it’s not likely that it’ll make you healthier or happier,” says Smedley. Instead, she suggests, consume your news in smaller portions. 

The easiest way to do that might be to set a limit. “For some people,” Smedley explains, “that might be 15 minutes after work to talk about it with a friend or partner. Give yourself permission to share your worries and talk about the news — but then switch the subject.” 

For limiting online activity, a great strategy is to set an alarm on your phone. When the alarm goes off, then it’s time for a news update. This helps place controls on the amount of information you consume and prevents it from being the center of your attention, Smedley says. 

Stay-calm strategy #4: Look into the future — hypothetically 

Imagination can be a powerful tool to calm your fears — and show you that you can handle whatever comes your way. 

To use it to deal with anxiety, imagine what you would do and how you would feel in a certain scary-feeling situation. “Imagine yourself coping and then looking back at it, thinking: I was nervous about XYZ, but I got through it,” says Smedley.  

Visualizing the outcomes can help you move beyond fear and find solutions. “If you’re anxious, you might not immediately be able to see yourself as being able to cope,” says Smedley. “But playing out that movie in your mind can give you a sense of control — it can help you realize through thought experiment that you would actually have ways to [get through it].” 

If your worry is interfering with everyday tasks and holding you back from activities you enjoy, you’re not alone. It could be time to talk to your doctor about other ways to manage your anxiety. This way, you can get back to living your life to the fullest.

For any questions regarding mental health coverage, benefits, or providers, please call the Mental Health/Substance Abuse phone number on the back of your member ID card.