People with anxiety disorders (like OCD and others) or habit disorders (like hair pulling, skin picking or nail-biting) sometimes focus on the anxiety involved with these problems, and can make the erroneous assumption that treating anxiety will in fact treat the problem. It’s important to realize that, for OCD, anxiety is a byproduct of the of sessions, not a cause of the sessions. For habit disorders, anxiety might be one stimulus that causes someone to pull or pick, but there may be six or seven possible other stimuli as well. In each of these cases, make sure that you seek stress management only as an adjunct to other forms of treatment designed to get at the real problem.
That said, stress management is something that all of us could include in our lives, and it really ought to be incorporated into our lifestyle. These days, culture and technology have conspired to provide us with a whole new set of social stressors, but most of the tenets of good stress management will sound like old-fashioned common sense. Nevertheless, I’ll go over a few of the high points here.
1. Eat well. This means get a good balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats, and make sure most of your carbohydrates come from vegetables and fruits. Even though sugar probably does not causing anxiety, simple carbohydrates can set you up for blood sugar crash later on, leaving you either anxious or sleepy. Don’t skip breakfast, and try to match your daily intake of calories to the amount that you actually burn. Keep your caffeine intake to a minimum, and be careful with alcohol and other “socially acceptable drugs”. Don’t bother trying to consume foods that might be high in tryptophan or other precursors to serotonin; those foods might just make you sleepy, but won’t really reduce your stress. Additionally, you really can’t raise your brain levels of serotonin by changing your diet.
2. Get enough sleep. Enough sleep usually means about eight hours for most people, and between 9 and 12 hours of sleep for teenagers. It also means good quality sleep, uninterrupted and leaving you feel rested. Finally, it’s also important to get sleep at the right time, meaning your circadian clock needs to be in sync with the sun. Staying up late at night might feel like you’re being productive, but it will not make you feel as restored as sleeping during the dark hours and being awake during the light once. If you are too vigilant at night to sleep through without being awakened, consider putting some kind of background noise in your room while you sleep (like a fan or a white noise generator). Sufficient sleep is essential for a balanced mood, anxiety control, impulse control and anger management.
3. Get enough exercise. Everything in your body works better when you have sufficient exercise, especially your brain. This does not mean that working out will cure your OCD, but it does mean that if you spend all day sitting, it will be harder to manage your stress. But you can exercise doing lots of different things, including gardening, dancing, bicycling, etc. Get outside and move!
4. Learn the acronym HALTE. This is a quick list of anxiety mimics, and stands for five questions: Am I Hungry? Am I Angry? Am I Lonely? Am I Tired? Do I need Exercise? You might be able to reduce your feelings of anxiety lead by addressing one of these other physiological needs or emotional states.
5. Acknowledge your external stressors. These are things that create stress from outside you, and include things like job requirements, family and school responsibilities, financial concerns, chores and social obligations, etc. you might not be able to delegate or get rid of any of these easily, but at least by acknowledging them, you will be better able to put them (and the stress you feel from them) into perspective.
6. Learn to be aware of your internal stressors. These are primarily related to the 10 cognitive distortions, the subject of a different post. These reflect the stress you put on yourself because of the way that you think. Learning to be aware of these distorted thoughts means that you will be able to challenge them as well, and thus have some control over your internal stress.
7. Learn one of the techniques of relaxation. One or more of the techniques of relaxation can help relieve the physical signs of stress. These include meditation (especially mindfulness meditation, where you learn to focus on one stimulus, like your breathing or the sounds of the environment), diaphragmatic breathing (where you use your diaphragm to breathe instead of your chest muscles, deeply and slowly), progressive muscle relaxation (where you tighten and relax one major muscle group at a time, from your toes to your head) or guided imagery (where you imagine your favorite restful scenario, and then add in the contribution that each of your senses make to that scenario). Practicing these can make an instant impact on your feelings of stress.