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 as part of business skills classes in the corporate environment. 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?
Most anxiety stems from people’s fear of events and situations that feel out of our control, like the war in Ukraine or a stressful job. Physical symptoms make it difficult to concentrate. It helps to notice your body. Are your shoulders tensing? Are you getting irritable, are you becoming extremely sensitive? It helps to get clear of what’s within and outside of our control. 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 worry and unpredictable outcomes.
Quick Fixes for Stress and Anxiety
What are quick fixes we can do in a stressful moment?
Focusing on 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, starting from the belly upwards. Hold it for three seconds then exhale for three seconds, and hold for three. Continue doing that for each of your fingers as you touch your thumb. 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 your clothing ever caught fire you had to stop, drop and roll to put out the flames. If you just got yelled at by an irate customer, the worst thing you could do is try to ignore it afterward and continue working. Don’t send an email in an angry or stressed out state of mind. It’s like you’re running on fire emotionally. 1) Stop. Step away from the situation. Find a private spot (like outside or the restroom) to compose yourself. 2) Drop. Drop/Express 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, now that you’ve gotten yourself in a better mindset and return to address the situation.
Keep a favorite picture on your phone or turn on your favorite music during stressful moments to shift your mindset with positive visual triggers and sounds.
Long Term Solutions
Beyond immediate situations, what are longer term solutions for anxiety?
If you are having serious anxiety see a doctor/psychiatrist. There are some effective medications that can help for sever episodes.
For a lot of people reducing everyday anxiety comes down to mind shift. It starts with understanding that everyday anxiety stems from the internal conversations you have with yourself. You can change those messages over time but I suggest a simple – not easy – method. You have to notice it, own it, then fix it. 1) Notice it – what’s the trigger? You can learn about the moments/events that trigger a reaction. Awareness is the first step. 2) Own it – You really can’t blame other for how you choose to react to a situation. You can’t evaluate why you react to a trigger until you first OWN that reaction. You could then ask yourself, “Is this true? 3) Fix it – replace your internal lie with the truth.
When I was a kid I was terrible at baseball so I was put in the right field. Just the thought of the ball coming to me triggered fear and dread. ‘I can’t miss or else I’ll be humiliated for the rest of my life.’ 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. The truth is, ‘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. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which handles executive brain functions (plan, organize, self-control) doesn’t fully develop until you’re twenty-five so kids can be much more cruel than adults. Bullies and ‘mean girls’ use exclusionary tactics in order to get control or punish/humiliate others. This causes insecurities which can create emotional damage and scarring.
There are ways to help them with this. Teach them techniques for addressing the hurt of being a target of emotional abuse, and be cautious of use of social media – where cyber bullying can be stressful or hurtful. It’s helpful to remember that people can’t make you feel mad or feel hurt – it’s YOUR reactions/your choice. Although not easy in many cases, you CAN choose to not react that way. A favorite old saying holds true for me, ‘What you think of me is not any of my business.’ You can learn to reframe criticism that can be hurtful. You might ask yourself, Is there anything constructive in this person’s critique? If not, delete the social media 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.)
Another quote I like isDr. 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.” I think it’s a helpful goal to work toward letting go of the possibly damaging impact of destructive criticism as a way of maintaining a positive self-image.
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?
One maxim I like to offer people is “Fake it till you make it.” When feeling disconnected, you might practice greeting even a handful of strangers with some eye contact, your warmest smile and a kind, assertive greeting (even if it’s not feeling authentic.) You generally will get a positive response With just a few of such interactions, you can actually turn your mood around and feel more connected (which can be reciprocated in others). In my workshops, I call this the “Meet and Greet” exercise, whcih can quickly turn a negative mood around, if done properly.
Name the biggest stressors for people at work. Any tips?
People tend to get stressed out when they feel that they have no “control” over the situations they encounter during their day. Sometimes work can feel like you’re just parachuting into a pool filled with waiting alligators, with gaping mouths. I sometimes use a humorous photo of that in my presentations to demonstrating that feeling, before teaching the value of how the “Meet and Greet” exercise can be a type of quick attitude make-over.
To gain better control over your day, you CAN prioritize the never-ending tasks dropping into your in-box. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen R. Covey notes that not all tasks are equally important. Whenever someone gives you a task, project or opportunity, you can priortize by examining two factors: relative importance and relative urgency. You could define importance as the level of impact that project has if you complete if (or fail to do so). Urgency is just dependent on the deadline, real or artificial.
If you consider Pareto’s 80/20 rule, one hour approximated about 20% of your workday. Dedicate that time to get your most important tasks done. By completing your task on time as your “Priority Hour to focus on those tasks which are of high importance, but low urgency. The rest of your day can be dedicated to crises as well as the routine tasks that usually fill our our day (generally low importance, but high urgency). You could finish up almost everyday as impactful and productive when you prioritize the important tasks and get them done a little at a time. It’s all about focusing on those tasks on which we would normal procrastinate.
Schedule your time. Write tasks down. There are apps that can help with this too. Don’t forget to reward yourself when you complete a milestone, even the small ones.
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’t have much of any control over the course of that war, but you can take some action. You can donate to a good cause or volunteer. You can journal to express your thoughts. These are just the tip of the iceberg of things you can do that would give you a great sense of control by focusing on what you CAN do versus what you cannot. This will help reduce some of the sources of stress and anxiety in your life. No matter what you choose to do, if your levels of anxiety become unmanageable, ALWAYS see some professional help, counseling and coaching. 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:
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Copyright (c) Lisa Traugott 2022. All rights reserved.