Anxiety and Stress Relief Strategies
Times are stressful – pandemic, inflation, social unrest. Earlier this month, while teaching a workshop about storytelling during conference in San Antonio, I sat in on a panel about simple ways to overcome anxiety led by Bart Loeser. The information he gave was so useful and timely, I interviewed him for more info. We discussed quick fixes to do in a stressful moment, tips for teen anxiety, techniques to calm post-Covid social discomfort, and longer term solutions and exercises to manage stress. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Hope you find it helpful!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m Bart Loeser. I’ve been teaching wellness for 35 years with a passion for helping people deal with stress and anxiety. I’m a Texas native with a degree in psychology from the University of Texas and MBA work at the University of Houston. In the 80s I was one of the first HIV educators, teaching people how to live well with life threating issues. From there I expanded to teach about mindfulness, wellness and productivity in business. I’ve given hundreds of seminars to businesses in the US and abroad to help find simple solutions to life’s challenges.
How do you define anxiety?
We fear something and think it’s out of our control, like the war in Ukraine or a stressful job. Physically it becomes difficult to concentrate. Notice your body. Are your shoulders tensing? Are you getting irritable, are you becoming extremely sensitive? This is where the Alcoholic’s Anonymous Serenity Prayer comes in handy, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In my work I find people are most anxious about unpredictable outcomes.
Quick Fixes for Stress and Anxiety
What are quick fixes we can do in a stressful moment?
Do controlled breathing using the finger to thumb method. Touch your index finger to your thumb and take a deep breath for three seconds that fills your entire lungs. Hold it for three seconds then exhale for three seconds. Continue doing that for each of your fingers. By the end you will feel noticeably calmer with better concentration. It’s something you can do in the office and no one will even notice or know what you’re doing.
Another technique is called Stop, Drop and Roll. Remember when you were a kid in school and your teachers made you do fire drills? If you ever caught fire you had to stop, drop and roll to put out the flames. If you just got cursed out by an irate customer, the worst thing you could do is continue working and send an email in that stressed out state of mind. It’s like you’re running on emotional fire. 1) Stop. Step away from the situation. Find a private spot (like outside or the restroom) to compose yourself. 2) Drop. Drop the negativity by letting yourself have a ten second tantrum in a private place to get those emotions out of your body. Then take a few (three – five) deep breaths. 3) Roll with the punches. Get yourself in a better mindset and return.
Keep a favorite picture on your phone or turn on your favorite music during stressful moments to shift your mindset.
Long Term Solutions
Beyond immediate situations, what are longer term solutions for anxiety?
If you are having serious anxiety see a doctor.
For a lot of people reducing everyday anxiety comes down to mindfulness. You have to notice it, own it, then fix it. 1) Notice it – what’s the trigger? When I was a kid I was terrible at baseball so I was put in the outfield. Whenever I saw the ball coming to me and I realized I’d have to catch it, it triggered fear and dread. ‘I can’t miss or else they’ll hate me for the rest of my life.’ 2) Own it – ask yourself, ‘Is this true? No. The truth is if I miss the ball I miss. The truth is the future is unknown and I’m only thinking worst-case scenario. 3) Fix it – replace your internal lie with the truth. ‘I can catch it and if I don’t it’s not the end of the world.’
Teen anxiety is through the roof. Why is that and do you have any teen-specific suggestions?
Nearly 1 in 3 teens will experience an anxiety disorder. The world is a scary place, especially for kids today. When I was growing up newspapers gave days old information. Everything now is immediate, so it feels more real. Teens want to fit in and feel respected and there’s a lot of disrespect going on right now, especially online. Your prefrontal cortex, which handles executive brain functions (plan, organize, self-control) doesn’t fully develop until you’re twenty-five so kids can be cruel. Bullies and ‘mean girls’ will exclude other to get control or humiliate. This causes insecurities which can destroy them.
There are ways to help with this. Limit the triggers. Turn off social media. Watch the news less. Teens and adults stress out over comments people leave on social media. Remember that people can’t make you feel mad or feel hurt – it’s your choice. That old saying still holds true, ‘What you think of me is not any of my business.’ When someone criticizes you, reframe it. Is there anything constructive in this person’s critique? If not, delete the comment!
(For an inspirational story about a teen who discovered she was called ‘the world’s ugliest woman’ online and fought back, check out this interview with Lizzie Vasquez.)
Stop beating yourself up. This is where the DAM technique is helpful. You disavow the lie, avow what is true and do mirror work. Spend two minutes on each section. You disavow the lie ‘I’m stupid, I’m ugly, No one likes me,’ etc. by actually yelling ‘It’s a lie that ___’. Then you avow what is true. ‘I’m smart, I’m funny, I’m fun’. Then you look in a mirror and connect with yourself. Love yourself and your body you inhabit at this point in time. Apologize to yourself for saying mean things about yourself. Forgive yourself for past mistakes. Tell yourself you have things to learn but you’re willing. It feels a little weird when you start. If you commit to it, it takes about a month to change your thoughts. What you tell yourself becomes your reality.
I like that Dr. Seuss quote, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
Covid has changed how we relate to each other. Zoom instead of live meetings, social distance, face masks. Now that people are going back to pre-pandemic life, do you have any tips for people with social anxiety?
Fake it till you make it. When you’re in the crowd find some people to truly connect with. Look at the bridge of their nose. Give your warmest smile, as people tend to mirror each other’s expressions. Use a calm ‘library voice’ so your tone doesn’t sound too aggressive. When I’m leading a workshop I’ll have everyone find a partner, smile, give their warmest greeting and connect with their eyes. People are usually uncomfortable. Then I tell them to find a second person, do the same greeting but take it up a notch. Ask yourself, ‘what can I do to make it more sincere?’. Greet a third person. Go over the top. Exaggerate. That will help you find your boundary. You can always take the friendliness down a notch but most people need to build it up. It’s more important to look social than to feel it. The more you practice the easier it feels.
Name the biggest stressors for people at work. Any tips?
People get stressed out when they feel that they have no control over their day and when they have to deal with difficult people. There’s a funny photo of a man getting parachuted onto an island surrounded by crocodiles and it says, ‘I’ll do the best I can but I can’t make everyone happy.’ Sometimes work can feel like that.
To get control over your day prioritize. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen R. Covey notes that not all tasks are important. Whenever someone gives you a task, project or opportunity, ask two questions: 1) How important is this project and 2) what is the urgency. Will the project impact your life in a good way if you complete it? Will it give you a better future? Impact your job? Relationships? For the urgency, figure out the real deadline. Estimate the time and effort it will take to get it done.
One hour equals 20% of your workday. Dedicate that time to get your most important tasks done. By completing your task on time you will increase your self-esteem and prove yourself to be dependable to your co-workers and boss. Excuses destroy trust.
Schedule your time. Write tasks down. There are lots of apps that can help with this too. Reward yourself when you complete a milestone.
When you are dealing with people who are demanding of your time, it’s important to set boundaries. Try the USA technique. Give an understanding statement with empathy. (I understand it’s important to you that I do ___). After your understanding statement, never follow it with ‘but’ or ‘however’. Make your statement put a period on it and pause. Then, tell your situation. (Here’s my situation…). Take action. Negotiate something better for both of you. (If you want to have a seat I’ll be able to focus on you completely in ten minutes.)
Understand that there are so many little things you can do to relieve stress and anxiety. Think of the first thing we spoke about – the war in Ukraine. You can’t end the war, but you can take action. You can donate to a good cause or volunteer. You can journal to get your thoughts out. Take care of yourself.
Thanks, Bart! If you’d like Bart to speak at your business or organization, you can reach him via his Facebook Page:
Here’s my story. Get your copy here.
Copyright (c) Lisa Traugott 2022. All rights reserved.