Managing Anxious Thoughts During Stressful Times
There’s no way around it: we’re living in a stressful time. Even if your usual motto is “Don’t worry, be happy,” you may find that suddenly, you’re unable to dismiss unhelpful, repetitive thoughts from your mind.
Stress is a normal part of life, and our bodies have physiological mechanisms for recovering after a nerve-racking event, whether it’s a car crash or a job interview. However, chronic stress is a different ballgame.
When you’re unable to manage stress, it can begin to overwhelm you, affect your immune system, and make a difficult situation worse. So how can you manage the stress of living through a tough time? Nervousness and overthinking are a natural response to a global crisis. Yet it’s important to focus on what you can control. This is your guide on how to manage stress in life to help you stay calm, grounded, and healthy—both physically and mentally.
Explore Your Feelings
When you’re stressed, it’s normal to want to escape your feelings. After all, stress can come with a number of unpleasant physical symptoms: a racing heart, sweating, an upset stomach. Beyond the physical symptoms, you might tie yourself in mental knots, beating yourself up for your feelings.
In the midst of a stressful situation, have you ever had thoughts like the following?
- What if X happens? I already feel so awful—how can I cope with that?
- Why am I like this? Will I always feel this way?
- I shouldn’t even be upset. Other people have it so much worse than me.
This kind of overthinking can actually make it harder to cope with stress. You’ve begun to introduce new stressors into your internal monologue. Before you know it, you’re not just worried about one thing—you’re worried about everything in the past, present, and future.
However, it’s important not to stuff your nervous feelings down. If you do, they might end up coming back to bite you later. Stanford professor Dr. Mickey Trockel, M.D, explains that:
“The biggest concern is when anxiety starts to create an avoidance cycle. When something is provoking those emotions, then avoiding it feels good — and because that feels good, it’s reinforcing the anxiety. Then, the next time the situation comes up, without any conscious decision-making, it creates greater intensity.”
When you avoid your own emotional response, your future self may have a harder time coping in the long run. Instead of ignoring your overthinking, it can be helpful to take a closer look at your thoughts in an intentional way.
Writing down your thoughts is one of the ways to manage stress. In a 2006 meta-analysis of over 100 studies on journaling, Joanne Frattaroli, Ph.D., found a positive correlation between journaling and decreased stress. While the exact reasons why journaling is so effective remain unknown, Dr. Frattarolio reviews several theories:
- Writing down your negative thoughts is cathartic, and can help you let go of them.
- Writing about your feelings can help you to better understand yourself and your reactions, keeping you from going down destructive paths in the future.
- You may feel a better sense of confidence and self-control when you’re able to put your feelings into clear writing.
Not sure what to write about? Sometimes, having a specific task can make self-reflection easier. The below strategy can be used in writing, or you can simply make a conscious effort to apply it to your thoughts.
Ask Yourself Questions
We often take parts of our internal monologue as factual, when in fact we’re only speculating. Try the following strategies from Psychology Today for recognizing and coping with your thoughts as they arise:
- Ask yourself: is this thought based on an objective fact? Or am I guessing?
- When you imagine a worst-case scenario, ask yourself: how likely is it that this will happen? What is most likely to happen, based on my past experience? Evaluate your thoughts against objective evidence.
- Label your thoughts. Ask yourself, Am I worrying right now? Am I criticizing myself? Judging myself? Dr. Tara Chanksy recommends that you label your negative thoughts with names, as if they were characters in a TV show. If you notice that you’re always worrying about the future, you might call that inner voice Mr. Worrywort. Then, when that voice re-emerges, remind yourself that Mr. Worrywort is going on again. This can help create cognitive distance from an unhelpful thought.
Interrupt the Cycle
Sometimes, you’ve had too much of your own inner monologue and you need to take a break from your overthinking. If you find yourself looping the same thoughts, it’s important to have strategies to get into a different mental space. Try the following:
- Take a walk – Even a short ten or fifteen minute walk can help you to feel calmer.
- Practice yoga, tai chi, or qigong – These three systems of movement are all “mind-body exercises” in which breath is linked to movement. A 2017 issue of Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine dedicated to studying these disciplines found that practicing mind-body exercise “may improve body function and health since [the] nervous system affects [the] endocrine system and immune system.”
- Have a glass of water and a snack – Sometimes, when we’re stressed, we may forget to meet our most basic needs. Is it possible that dehydration or hunger are contributing to your nervous state? It’s possible that getting up from the couch to have a healthy snack and quenching beverage is all it will take to reset your mood?
Any of the above ways to manage stress may help to improve your overall mental state, making it easier to dive back into self-reflection, or to try another strategy for managing your thoughts.
Try Deep Breathing
Not in the mood for physical activity? If your thoughts speed up at night and you’re unable to get up and move around without disturbing others, it’s helpful to have other strategies in your toolkit.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’ve probably been told to take a deep breath, whether by your therapist or your parents. In the heat of the moment, this can sometimes feel difficult, especially if you tend to take short, shallow breaths when you’re stressed.
However, that simple piece of advice is rooted in ancient wisdom.
Did you know that breathing exercises, or pranayama, are actually one of the traditional 8 limbs of yoga? The 8 limbs represent a progressive path for going deeper and deeper into stillness. Number 4 of the 8 limbs, pranayama is considered a deeper practice than asana (physical yoga), and a gateway step to meditation.
Deep breathing can be practiced lying on your back, in a comfortable seated position, or in a relaxing yoga pose like legs-up-the-wall. Try out the following exercises:
- Equal breathing (Sama vritti) – Inhale through your nose through a count of four, then exhale through your nose through a count of four. Lengthen both the inhale and the exhale to a count of five or longer as you get comfortable. Practice for 1-5 minutes.
- Abdominal breathing – Breathe with your hands on your belly. Feel it become full and round on the inhale. Feel your belly contract with the exhale. Practice for 1-5 minutes.
One hint for deep breathing? If it’s raising your stress levels rather than taking them down, back off. If you can’t sit still, it may feel better to follow your instincts and move around. Stress management is all about getting in touch with what you need. If that’s not deep breathing, listen to your body and move on rather than trying to force it.
Practice Meditation and Mindfulness
Once you’ve gotten more relaxed through any and all of the above practices, it may feel natural to go into a deeper meditative state. However, if sitting around thinking of nothing feels impossible given your current mental script, it can be better to try a mindfulness practice.
UCBerkeley’s Greater Good Magazine defines mindfulness as:
“Maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”
Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment and observing your thoughts and sensations as they arise. And it’s more than just a buzzword: mindfulness has been found to decrease stress and improve your sense of well-being. You can practice mindfulness during meditation, or while washing the dishes. Consider the following mindfulness practices:
- Sense door labeling – As you meditate or complete a task, label sensations as they arise. Put them in the following categories:
- Physical sensation
Simply maintain this practice, noticing what’s coming up most frequently, for 1-10 minutes.
- Mindfully eat – Sit down for a meal without your TV on in the background or your cellphone in hand. Instead, really notice how your food smells and tastes, and how you feel as you eat it. Notice the other thoughts that come up as you continue to eat, simply observing them as they come and go. When you’re done eating, you’re done with your mindfulness exercise.
The great thing about mindfulness? You can do it anywhere, at any time. Practice mindfulness for a couple of minutes at a time to reconnect with the present moment and stop speculating about the future.
CBD and Plant Based Medicine, How To Manage Stress
Sometimes, when you’re feeling stressed, it feels impossible to take a step forward. You know you’re caught in a closed loop of unhelpful thoughts, but the idea of hitting your yoga mat or sitting down to meditate makes you feel even more nervous.
Luckily, there’s an all-natural, plant-based solution that can help you break your mental script and get some much needed relief from nerves: CBD.
How does it work?
It all comes down to CBD’s interaction with the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). The ECS is a network of nerve cells that regulate sleep, appetite, stress, and more. CBD influences ECS receptors and helps calm an overactive nervous system.
Once you’ve experienced CBD’s relaxing effects, your ECS can better do its job—and you can take further action to tackle your overthinking head-on.
Plant People CBD
Plant People’s organic, Colorado-grown CBD products are specifically formulated to help you cope with stress. Our Be Calm capsules combine hemp-derived CBD and adaptogenic herbs to promote relaxation on a daily basis.
When you’re stressed, you can feel overwhelmed and out-of-control. However, there’s one thing you can control: the way you manage your feelings. With a little know-how and effort, it’s possible to conquer your overthinking and start experiencing a little more peace each day.
Huffington Post. How to stop an anxious thought in its tracks. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-to-stop-feeling-anxious_n_5481988?guccounter=1
Psychology Bulletin. Experimental disclosure and its moderators: a meta-analysis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17073523?dopt=Abstract
Psychology Today. 9 ways to calm your anxious mind. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201506/9-ways-calm-your-anxious-mind
Psych Central. 3 tips for dealing with anxious thoughts. https://psychcentral.com/blog/3-tips-for-dealing-with-anxious-thoughts/
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Exercise for stress and anxiety. https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-anxiety/exercise-stress-and-anxiety
Yoga Journal. Get to know the 8 limbs of yoga. https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/the-eight-limbs
Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10865-007-9130-7
Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Tai Chi, yoga, and qigong as mind-body exercises. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5244011/
Greater Good Magazine. What is mindfulness? https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition