7 Mental Hacks to Lower Stress and Anxiety
Back in high school I remember taking a class called culture and communications studies.
On the whole, it was a relatively forgettable class. But one thing that did stick with me was the concept of communication filters.
In short, let’s say you want to share an idea with a friend.
Your friend might hear your exact words, but there’s still no guarantee they understand the idea.
That’s because we’re all wired differently, and in a sense we all have different “filters”.
But here’s the thing, our mental filters aren’t just active during communication.
In truth, everything we experience is filtered several times over before it finally enters awareness.
This is exactly why some people see this dress as black and blue, while others see it as white and gold.
But it also explains why a situation can elicit so many different reactions from different people.
Our Various Mental Filters
Take for example the idea of holding a snake. For most people these crawly creepies will cause immense fear and anxiety.
But after personally having lived with a pet snake for about half a year now, I’ve actually come to see them as quite cute!
It seems the way we react to the situations we’re faced with is simply a product of our various mental filters.
And it just so happens that these filters can be changed and manipulated, at times quite easily.
That’s what I’ve chosen to call mental hacks. Small tweaks to our mental filters, leading to big changes in interpretations and reactions.
But don’t let that wording fool you.
The following techniques are in fact far closer to being life-changing than they are life-hacking!
Can You Cope?
Here’s an aspect of stress resilience that is often overlooked:
Your assumptions about how much you can cope with.
Even a relatively small change to this belief will have dramatic effects on how much stress and anxiety you end up feeling, if any at all.
That might sound stupidly simple, and in fact it is.
Here’s what Eva Selhub has to say about it in her book “The Stress Management Handbook”:
“When you perceive stress to be manageable, you gain control over the stress response and over your reactions. Perception is actually the key to being resilient.
The more you believe in your own ability and resources to handle adversity, the more likely you are to perceive stress as manageable, leading to less worry, more confidence, a stronger sense of self-value, positive expectation, a controlled stress response, and a stronger you.”
Here’s an example;
Let’s say you’re asked to deliver a small speech to a room full of people, it could be a work related task, or maybe a friend or family member is getting married.
Public speaking just so happens to be a very common fear, so you’re not alone if this task gives you some anxiety.
But let’s now imagine the effects of thinking one of two things:
“I’ve never held speeches before, there’s simply no way I can get through this without messing up!
Why me, seriously… I need to find a way to get out of this situation before it’s too late…”
What mental state do you think this trail of thoughts will lead to?
If you guessed anxiety and stress…
Ding Ding Ding. You’re absolutely correct.
Being given the task functions as a trigger, but it’s the PERCEPTION of the task as impossible that actually causes most stress and anxiety.
Now what if you actively chose another trail of thoughts? Something along the lines of:
“Wow! Speaking to a crowd? That makes me really anxious! But I guess that makes sense because it’s something I’ve never tried before. Some people actually do this for a living though, so I know it’s possible…
Heh, now that I think about it, it’s actually a little exciting and humbling to be trusted with this task. I can definitely do this if I push through the nerves!”
Would this extinguish all stress and anxiety? Surely not.
But it does plant the idea in your mind of the task being possible and of you being able to cope with it.
That belief in yourself as capable will, as if by magic, actually MAKE YOU CAPABLE.
It’s a relatively small tweak to your mindset, but the consequences are nothing short of amazing.
Stop Treating Yourself like A Child and Take Responsibility
Have you ever caught yourself in a bad mood and just assumed it was one of those days?
“I don’t feel very motivated or happy today, hopefully it passes by tomorrow.”
Or maybe nothing seems to be going your way? Car battery is dead, traffic is horrible, phone screen breaks, etc.
“Ah that’s just my kind of luck, I picked the short straw again. Fate must just have it out for me.”
Burst that bubble right now. It’s not “one of those days”, and fate certainly doesn’t have it out for you.
The real problem here is that helpless attitude and mindset that we sometimes like to indulge in.
This is the law of attraction in a nutshell.
If you walk around assuming you’re cursed and unlucky, don’t be surprised when you end up cursed and unlucky.
There’s nothing hocus-pocus about this fact of life, it’s just that we tend to gravitate toward the outcomes we expect.
This also means that assuming we’re blessed and lucky generally leads to a happier life.
Put simply, if we want good things in life, including less stress and anxiety, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as helpless, anxiety-ridden, and stressed.
And start thinking more in line with what we want!
Can We Have Some Compassion?
Let’s imagine for a second that you’re babysitting or caring for a child of your own.
And let’s say that they’re in a less than ideal mood about to throw a hissy fit.
Do you react to their emotional outburst with anger, frustration, and threats of punishment?
Or do you try to be compassionate and understanding?
Maybe some would opt for the former, but I think we can all agree it rarely leads to much good.
If anything it’s likely to cause more tears and resentment.
No, that simply won’t do.
Adding more firepower by getting frustrated obviously doesn’t lead to the de-escalation we’re aiming for.
The best reaction is a calm, compassionate, and understanding one.
Now here’s the million dollar question.
When you feel stressed or frustrated… How do you talk to yourself?
Take inventory of the thoughts that go through your head in these situations.
I think you’ll be surprised by just how cruel and cold to yourself you can be.
Please remember that a little understanding and compassion goes a long way when it comes to combating negative emotions…
So cut yourself some slack!
Stop, Now Take a Breather
Whenever I start feeling anxious or panicky I always stop whatever I’m doing and focus exclusively on slowing down my breathing.
This is known as abdominal breathing, and it’s extremely effective, to the point of having saved me from more panic attacks than I can remember.
A similar trick can also be used for mental turmoil however, and I bet it’s one you’re already familiar with.
You might know it as a trick to deal with anger management, but it works equally well for stress and anxiety.
Whenever you feel control start slipping away, stop whatever you’re doing and count slowly to ten.
This gives you the necessary time to regain composure, keeping you from being pulled into a spiral of negative thoughts and emotions.
While counting try to focus on your breathing for added effect, then follow up with some of the other techniques mentioned in this article!
What’s Going on in Your Mind Anyway?
Cognitive restructuring is a prominent technique from cognitive behavioral therapy.
It’s an incredibly powerful tool to break out of negative and irrational thought patterns, and irrational thinking is a large part of what makes stress stressful!
We might for example assume, without good reason, that we’ll screw up when delivering a speech, but that’s irrational!
Equally so is the belief that some days are just inherently worse than others, or that we’ve been cursed with bad luck.
When you catch yourself getting lured in by these kinds of irrational thought patterns, you ideally want to interrupt them immediately.
In CBT this interruption happens through replacing the unhelpful thoughts with more rational alternatives.
This task commonly involves using a specific form known as the triple column.
We write down our irrational thoughts in the second column and our rational alternatives in the third column.
What you’ll find after spending time using the triple column form is that specific irrational thoughts are very repetitive.
And getting stuck in these repetitive thought patterns is in fact a large part of why we get strong negative emotional reactions, like those of stress and anxiety.
But every time you challenge an irrational thought by writing down a more rational alternative, that specific thought loses some power and is less likely to sweep you away in the future.
It’s exactly like breaking a habit, just that the habit is a particular thought pattern you tend to get stuck in.
Listening in on Your Mind
Building on the previous point, let’s dig a little deeper into the concept of self-talk.
According to Healthline:
“Your thoughts are the source of your emotions and mood. The conversations you have with yourself can be destructive or beneficial. They influence how you feel about yourself and how you respond to events in your life.”
This is exactly why cognitive therapy focuses so much on thoughts and beliefs.
Because cognitions lead to emotions.
Feeling stressed? You can be certain you’ve been ruminating about something stressful.
Feeling depressed? You’ve almost surely been beating yourself up inside your mind.
The same goes for every other emotional state, thoughts always come first.
So have you actually taken a good long look at the way you talk to yourself?
And when’s the last time you sat down and gave yourself some praise for all the good work you do?
I honestly believe this is something you should try at least once per week, if not daily.
Remind yourself that you’re important, worthy of love, strong, and capable!
The 5-4-3-2-1 Method
To round out your anti-stress toolbox, here’s one of my favorite mindfulness techniques.
It’s known as the 5-4-3-2-1 coping method, and it’s fantastic for anxiety and stress.
Start by looking around you and
- name FIVE things you can see.
- Name FOUR things you can touch.
- THREE things you hear.
- TWO things you can smell.
- And finally, name ONE thing you can taste.
Feel free to move around during the exercise if you for example want to touch, smell, or taste something out of reach.
The beauty of this technique is that it helps you get out of your mind through connecting with the world around you.
It’s difficult to quantify just how important a skill like this can be during moments of really bad anxiety or stress!
Here’s a video showing the technique in use for those who want a more in depth explanation.
You Can Take Precautions Too
But why stop there?
All of the techniques we’ve looked at today have been reactionary, meaning they help us AFTER stress or anxiety hits.
But the best way to deal with negative emotional states is to stop them BEFORE they happen.
Tools like relaxation training, mindfulness, physical exercise, loving-kindness meditation, etc. can do exactly that.
Or in other words, the best way to combat stress/anxiety is to live an anti-stress/anxiety lifestyle.
A good start might be the article found right here featuring eleven proven treatments for anxiety:
Do you know any other tricks to lower stress or anxiety? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below! 🥰