Stress and anxiety are inevitable in an overcrowded, overstimulated, fast-paced world. They are neither shameful, nor a sign of weakness. Men in particular often take this view, ignoring the warning signs and allowing the stress to build, leading to depression, insomnia and even physical illness.
The first step is simple: improve your physical health. Begin with your diet. Do you drink a lot of alcohol? Are you overweight? Do you eat too much junk food? Pay attention not only to what you eat, but how. Too many of us eat in a rush, gulping food down without properly chewing. This leads to poor digestion which in turn causes inflammation and anxiety. So begin with a few deep breaths and then chew each mouthful slowly and thoroughly. The benefits of exercise and healthy eating cannot be overstated. Eat raw, organic fruit and vegetables and good quality protein. Reduce the amount of sugar, caffeine and refined carbohydrates in your diet as well. Next, take up an exercise regimen. It can be difficult to self-motivate, so consider joining a club. Make the exercise regular but gentle. Excessive or brutal activity can lead to inflammation in the body, something to be avoided if possible. A swimming or cycling club would be ideal.
The second step is obvious. Before you can deal with stress, you must identify the source. Perhaps you feel trapped in a toxic relationship. Or maybe you have money worries. For some people it is their job, for others their children or their aging parents.
Identifying the source is easy, doing something about it is harder. The third step is to write down a list of everything that stresses you. Now, make a second list. This time, take a ruler and draw a line down the middle of the paper. In the left hand column, write down the problems you can change; in the right, the problems you cannot. So, for example, you can change your job or end a toxic relationship. However, you have no control over climate change or the world’s birth rate. There are only two sane responses to your problems: change them or accept them. A job can be changed; a recession must be accepted.
A change in attitude is the fourth step. Try facing the source of stress and anxiety head on. For example, if you find socializing and meeting new people makes you anxious, try putting yourself in uncomfortable social situations over and over again. At first it will be unpleasant, but the fear will spike, then ease off. The more you do this, the more your brain will rewire. Neuroscientists now believe that the brain, far from being fixed, is in fact ‘plastic’. This means it is continually rewiring. So every time you avoid something that causes you anxiety, you reinforce the fear. Go towards what frightens you and face it down.
Finally, try mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. This needn’t be expensive. If you cannot afford to see a therapist, try working from a self-help book. Through mindfulness, you will learn to observe your thoughts rather than allowing them to take you over. Instead of identifying with them, you come to see them as something your mind does. Once you have achieved a measure of detachment from your thoughts, you can begin to challenge and correct them. You will soon identify patterns of negative, self-destructive thinking. With time, you will learn to counter them, developing new, more helpful patterns. Language itself can be your enemy. Many people will say “things always go wrong”, or “I never succeed”, “everyone is difficult” and so on. Such extreme, simplistic language is unhelpful to say the least. Be mindful and language could start to work for you rather than against you.
A multi-level approach is best. Attack your anxiety from all sides. Keep yourself in good physical shape by eating healthily, taking regular exercise and getting enough sleep. This alone is not enough of course. You must also be clear about the source, changing what can be changed and accepting what cannot. Face your fears, stop avoiding and learn to observe negative, destructive patterns of thinking. No one can live a wholly stress-free life, but follow the advice offered and you could live one in which the stress is much reduced.