Blog: Alleviating Stress and Anxiety

“Everyone is afraid, the difference is how you use the fear, it can give you speed and power or can paralyse you, so don’t try not to be afraid but rather use your fear”

Cus Damato, Mike Tyson’s trainer

A certain amount of stress and anxiety is normal. It kept early man alive and now it drives us to prepare and perform. All animals and humans are designed to live in an immediate return environment. 200,000 years ago, in the time of the homo sapiens, if people felt hungry they would eat, if it started to rain they found shelter and if they saw a predator they would run or fight. There wasn’t any need for ongoing stress and anxiety as their needs were met immediately and the homo sapien wouldn’t give their run-in with a sabre-toothed tiger another thought, once they were safe.  However, now we live in a delayed return environment where most of what we worry about is in the future – will I pass my exams? Can I fix my broken relationship? Will my children be happy and successful? Will I have enough money to retire? Unfortunately, our brains are not designed to live in a delayed return environment so often these worries and concerns can lead to stress and anxiety. 

However, if we set immediate return goals that alleviate the stress of our future worries then we can measure our progress and feel more in control of our present thus alleviating the stress and anxiety. For example:

Will I pass my exams? (delayed return)

Focus on following an effective study plan. (immediate return)

Can I repair my broken relationship? (delayed return)

Focus on what you can change about your behaviour in the relationship, being mindful that the only person you can control and change is yourself.  (immediate return)

Will my children be happy and successful? (delayed return)

Ensure what they are doing now gives them happiness and meaning. (immediate return)

Will I have enough money to retire? (delayed return)

Focus on what you can save or invest in now in preparation. 

To alleviate anxiety and stress, find quality time for yourself. Do things that make you feel happy, fulfilled and give you meaning as well as spend time with people that make you feel good. This will not only help to alleviate negative feelings but give your confidence and feelings of self-worth a boost. 

In addition, avoid negativity. If there is something that adds to your feelings of anxiety, for example, the news, then avoid it. Our brains interpret what it receives as reality so if it is only processing negative information it will believe this is the reality. First-year medical students often find themselves believing they have all sorts of illnesses and ailments because that is all their brains are exposed to all day.

If there are persistent thoughts that are causing you anxiety there are various mindfulness techniques you can try. For example, sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. If you can, breath in for the count of seven then out for eleven through your abdomen. Try to focus solely on your breathing, clearing your mind of everything else. As thoughts enter your mind, imagine you are stood on a riverbank next to a tree. Label a leaf with your thought and send it down the river, watching it disappear before going back to focusing on your breathing. Repeat this every time a thought enters your mind. This not only clears your mind and puts you in control of your thoughts but also tells your brain that you will deal with this issue, just not right now. 

Being in control of your thoughts rather than allowing your thoughts to control you in the first step towards alleviating anxiety and stress. Accepting what you can and can’t control and learning not to worry about what you cannot control will enable you to live in the present moment while learning to appreciate the impermanence of life.

‘Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life’.

Marcus Aurelius