Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D. author of YOUR NEXT BIG THING:10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy Stress is not bad. It just needs a new publicist. Stress and anxiety are different from each other, yet the terms are often used interchangeably. Stress is just a synonym for pressure. And pressure is a motivator. Too much of it is overwhelming, but without enough of it you won’t get anything done. Anxiety is very different from stress, in all the worst ways. Anxiety is a false alarm that is set off by anything that you perceive as a threat–and potential threats are all around us if you look for them. For example, noticing that your husband has been staying out later than usual can touch off anxiety that he will leave you, or a thoughtless comment from a boss can bring on a fear of being fired. There are many things that can start the anxiety spiral; it all depends on your circumstances. Once triggered, your alarm begins wailing. It is telling you, “You are in danger. Do something. Now.” The problem is, there may not be anything to do right now. But your mind wants to do its job, which is to keep you safe, and so it looks for some way to protect you. In the absence of something tangible to do — like confronting the problem directly — your mind does what it thinks is the next best thing: trying to plan for every possible scenario by imagining what you would do if your husband left you or if you got fired. Your mind becomes like the WOPR computer in the movie, “War Games,” which runs countless scenarios for a nuclear attack in order to make sure everything has been anticipated – (Spoiler Alert) for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, WOPR ultimately learned that the only way to win a nuclear war is not to get into one. Anticipating every possible situation may be possible for a computer, but it is certainly not for us, so we shouldn’t even try. Enter stress stage left. Stress, which is just pressure, can be thoughtfully applied to help you get things done, and if you’re doing, you can’t be spiraling. Finding areas where you can put pressure on yourself to do things will take away some of the psychological energy that you might use for the mental goose chase of anxiety. For those of you out there who have kids, think of this as trying to run your son or daughter ragged on the field or in a playground so that they will be able to settle down and rest at the end of the day. Here are some ways that you can add stress so you will have less anxiety:
This is the No. 1 answer on the board. Becoming engaged in creative actions, such as writing, painting, building, organizing people in your community or church, developing an idea or a project, or building an organization or business all add positive stress to your life. Creative action is a great way to use positive stress to combat anxiety.
Look, let’s face it, none of us are exercising enough. If you are not going to do it for your physical health, consider your mental health. This does not mean that you need to become a gym rat. Anything that raises your heart rate and, even better, makes you sweat can help add stress to reduce anxiety. Just taking the stairs instead of the elevator during the day, walking, biking, rollerblading or unicycling to, or from, work, or parking farther from the mall entrance will give you an excuse to stress your system.
Taxing your brain is a great strategy for adding stress to reduce anxiety — plus, it helps improve and preserve brain function as you age. Anything that you can do that helps your brain work harder can help reduce momentary anxiety. Try doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku or even one of those fancy brain trainer programs. All of these are great ways to get your brain working for you, not against you. So give it a try, add a little stress to your daily diet. The only thing you have to lose is the anxiety.
About the Author
Dr . Ben Michaelis is a clinical psychologist with an expertise in blending play, and creativity with mental health. Dr. Michaelis graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University (Columbia College) in 1995. He earned his Master’s degree from New York University in 2001 and received his PhD in 2004, also from NYU. Dr. Michaelis has been in private practice in New York City since 2005. Since that time he has authored numerous scholarly articles and served on the faculty of Lenox Hill Hospital. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University. His writing has been featured on The Huffington Post and Psychology Today.com, as well as many other popular websites and magazines. Dr. Michaelis has been a guest expert on various radio and nationally syndicated television programs. His first book, YOUR NEXT BIG THING:10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy, was released in December 2012.