It’s not so much whether you’ll have worries, be stressed or feel anxious…it’s how you’ll manage your worries, your stresses or your anxieties. And to better manage your worries, your stress or your anxiety, you have to know what they are, where they operate and how to take control. It can be a bit challenging, because in our common language we often use these three terms interchangeably and most of us experience at least one of these … if not all of these … every day. So, a good place to start is with definitions.
Worry is our brain focusing on what may go wrong and it can result in a cognitive loop of escalating worry, but this is strictly a brain thing. Worry doesn’t stimulate any other organs to “help”; it’s a mental loop that we can get caught up in. Worry stimulates our brain to get creative in finding solutions and actually helps our brains calm down … up to a point. To better cope, set yourself a limit on how much worry time you’re willing to allocate yourself – try 20 minutes. If you’re worrying, set a goal or an action plan. If you use a pad of paper and pencil, you actually will get to goal faster. Writing can reduce your “worry time” to 10 minutes or less before a resolution is reached.
Stress comes from the hard-wired response of our ancestors that typically resulted in flight, fight or freeze to respond to a predator. It isn’t worry that gives us sweaty hands or a rapid heart rate or faster breathing; it’s stress. Everyone’s stress mode is different, but most of us benefit from exercise to disperse the adrenaline or cortisol that are byproducts of stress. And just changing our environment will alleviate most acute stress. Too much pressure at work? Take a walk to the restroom, take a hike around the block or have a tall glass of water (nothing with caffeine) after the walk around.
Anxiety pushes both the stress buttons and the worry buttons, so it is both physical and psychological. Anxiety can behave a bit like stress, but there is not accompanying threat. It’s like a false alarm or simply a fire drill. In addition to limiting caffeine, also limit sugar intake when anxiety comes knocking at your door. Think of it as you would getting caught up in awkward conversation at a party. You need an alternative, a distraction. Find a music track to focus your attention, or massage your palms or fingers. You cannot think your way out of anxiety, but alternative stimuli can be a great diversion, but your computer or smart phone are not the distractions you need. Experiment with this one to see what works for you.
So that you can become a more “competent coper” first identify which of these three culprits are causing your next unsettled experience. Then work on how to respond. As with anything, you’ll get better with practice…don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional for some “training.”
Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.