Ways to manage anxiety and stress, and shift worrying to more productive thoughts
We all know it’s a mother’s job to worry. That’s just the way it is. Being a single mom, I am a huge worrier. But what happens when stress and anxiety become a chronic problem in a mom’s life and it begins affecting her health?
I sat down with Sarah Allen, a Chicago-based psychologist who specializes in solution-focused counseling for women, to talk about why stress is so difficult for women to handle, the physical and emotional problems chronic stress can cause, and ways to reduce and manage anxiety caused by stress.
Q: Why is stress so difficult for women to handle?
A: I don’t think handling stress is any more difficult for women than it is for men. Women typically just handle it differently. Women tend to have more on their plates as they juggle home and work life. They worry about many things at the same time: how their kids are doing socially, academically, etc., as well as about their relationships with their partners, parents, siblings, and friends. There is also work stress. Men can typically worry about one thing at a time and switch off thinking about home life when at work.
Q: What happens when women don’t manage stress effectively?
A: In small doses, stress can actually be useful, as it helps you to stay focused and alert and increases energy. But when stress becomes chronic, it can damage your health, your mood, your relationships, and your overall quality of life. Stress is sneaky! It can easily creep up on you so that being frazzled and overwhelmed starts to feel normal. You may not even recognize how much it is affecting you, so it is really important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of stress and then take steps to stop feeling so overwhelmed.
Allen, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and has been in practice for 22 years, offered the following six ways for single moms to manage anxiety and hence feel less stressed:
1. Stop the adrenaline. When you are stressed, adrenaline runs through your body. Your heart beats fast, your body tenses up, and your thoughts race. Racing thoughts make thinking clearly difficult and that is when you get overwhelmed and stressed. Doing a quick breathing exercise clears your thoughts and lets you take a time-out so you can come back to the situation and deal with it calmly. Try this:
- Take a slow breath in through the nose, breathing into your lower belly so you feel it inflate like a balloon (for the count of four).
- Hold your breath for one or two seconds.
- Exhale slowly through the mouth so that you are pushing out the air in the “balloon” and you feel your belly suck in (for the count of five).
- Make sure the exhale breath is one or two counts longer that the inhale breath, as this activates a greater relaxation response.
- Wait a few seconds before taking another breath.
Deep breathing triggers the stimulation of the vagus nerve—a nerve running from the base of the brain to the abdomen—which emits a neurotransmitter (acetylcholine) that dampens our nervous system, lowering the heart rate, relaxing the muscles, and most important, stopping your thoughts from racing so you can think straight and become calm.
2. Get enough sleep. Getting more sleep is the most important thing needing to change if you are feeling stressed. The average amount of sleep needed by adults for their body and mind to be fully rested is around seven hours a night. This, of course, can vary, but you know you aren’t getting enough when your mood is negatively affected.
Lack of sleep can stop you from thinking clearly. It can also decrease productivity and alter your mood significantly. The “walking tired” anger more easily, have problematic relationships, and are less likely than those who sleep well to exercise, eat healthfully, and engage in fun leisure activities—all because they are too tired.
My clients also tell me they stay up late as it is the only way to get some “me time.” We need to work on being either more organized or less of a perfectionist about getting things done, and knowing it’s OK to ask and expect help. It is totally necessary to have “me time” but not at the expense of sleep!
3. Build in time to stop and relax. I often hear my clients say “Come on, how on earth will I be able to make time for myself when I have so much to do?” I always reply, “If you don’t look after yourself, you won’t have the reserves to take care of all the other people in your life you take care of. When our reserves are low, we’re cranky, overly sensitive, and generally not as happy as we want to be. So please take some time each day, even if it is only 10 minutes, to relax. Here are some suggested ways in which to do that:
- Take a warm bath.
- Write a “to do” list for the next day to organize your thoughts.
- Practice relaxation exercises, such as light yoga, stretching, or meditation.
- Listen to a relaxation CD.
- Read a book or listen to the radio.
4. Don’t run yourself ragged. Say no! If you are a people pleaser, it is very hard to say no when someone asks you to do something, even if your schedule is already overwhelming. I suggest that you always say “Let me get back to you on that” and then actually ask yourself if (a) you want to do it and (b) you have time to do it without making yourself overwhelmed. It is usually easier to say no when you are not face-to-face with someone.
5. Stress is closely related to worry, so learn to worry less. So how do we worry less? The first thing to do is distinguish between worries that require your attention and worries that are unnecessary. The following questions can help you clarify this:
- Can I do something about this problem?
- Is this something I always worry about but nothing ever happens?
- Is this something that has a solution?
- Will my worrying make this situation better or worse, or have no effect at all?
If there is something you can do about the problem, take action or consciously choose not to take action. People often delay or avoid taking action or making decisions because they are worried about making a mistake. If there is nothing you can do, worrying does not make the situation better. Tell yourself that your worries are not helpful, and let them go. I know this is easier said than done, but it can improve with practice.
6. Reduce a worry’s power over you by getting the thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Being able to see the worry in black and white helps give you more perspective.
Study your worries by keeping a worry diary. Write down what you fear might happen (be as specific as possible) and then later, write down if what you were worried about actually happened, whether it was as bad as you expected, and what you did to cope with the situation. This will help you understand your worries better, distinguish between worries that are useful and those that are useless, and help you realize that you can cope no matter what happens.
Keep a pen and a pad of paper for worries that come to you at night. Night worries can go around and around in our head as it seems so important at the time to remember them. This can cause adrenaline levels to start rising in your body, which keeps you awake and your thoughts racing more. Writing down the worry and then distracting yourself (read using a book light or do relaxation techniques) calms you physically and mentally, allowing you to get to sleep.
I have to admit, I am a worrier, so Allen’s advice hits home with me! With time, the thing I’ve realized is that worrying is the most unproductive emotion you can have. Why? Because we are all powerless to fate. What we do have power over is how we handle the stress that comes with being a mom.
I have recently begun a practice to reduce stress that is really working. When I find myself worrying, I immediately shift into gratitude mode. I start thinking about everything I am thankful for, all the people I love, and those I appreciate. It is amazing how quickly the negative thoughts disappear. Try it!
Jackie Pilossoph, ESME’s Divorce Resource Guide, is the creator of Divorced Girl Smiling, a website that helps men and women facing divorce. She is also a weekly Huffington Post divorce blogger; the writer of a weekly column, “Love Essentially,” for the Chicago Tribune’s Pioneer Press; and a freelance corporate and business content writer. Pilossoph holds a master’s degree in journalism. She lives in Chicago with her two children. Oh, and she’s divorced.