Combatting Anxiety

From the Fonz to The Dude, some people handle the stresses of life better than others, but scientists are still learning exactly how they do it.  

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gave 179 healthy men and women a series of questionnaires regarding how they manage their emotions, stress, and anxiety in various scenarios. 

The study, published in the journal Emotion, revealed that people who use an emotional regulation strategy called "reappraisal," or looking at a problem in a new way, experience less social anxiety and less anxiety in general than those who regularly avoid addressing their emotions.

It sounds like an obvious conclusion, even without research, but it reaffirms the benefits of taking a step back from the rain to see the cloud's silver lining.

Keeping stress and anxiety levels low is more important than you might think. Both have been linked in numerous studies to heart problems, obesity, increased alcohol and drug consumption, and decreased quality of life.

The Importance of Optimism

Anxiety affects an estimated 18 percent of Americans. The World Health Organization says that anxiety and depression—which are often interlinked—could be the second leading causes of disability worldwide by 2020, so managing your mental health is of the utmost importance.  

To better understand these common mental health problems, researchers are learning how happy-go-lucky people ward off the negative effects of life's unavoidable stresses.

“This is something you can change,” lead researcher Nicole Llewellyn, a University of Illinois graduate student, said in a press release. “You can't do much to affect the genetic or environmental factors that contribute to anxiety, but you can change your emotion regulation strategies.”

Then again, suppressing your emotions in the short-term during a particularly stressful situation can be a good thing, such as when your boss is chewing you out or, say, you’re being sized up by an angry grizzly bear.

On the flip-side, researchers said, an always-sunny disposition could have adverse effects, causing you to ignore health problems or limiting your empathy for others. Or, you know, by making you think that snarling grizzly bear wants to cuddle.

“When something happens, you think about it in a more positive light, a glass half full instead of half empty,” Llewellyn said. “You sort of re-frame and reappraise what's happened and think, ‘what are the positives about this? What are the ways I can look at this and think of it as a stimulating challenge rather than a problem?’”

This applies to worries and anxieties we all face, such as fretting over having enough money at the end of the month or wondering if it’s the right time to buy a house.

However, bear in mind that periodic bouts of anxiety are different from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a condition that’s currently classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as regular, excessive anxiety and worry that’s difficult to control and leaves a person restless, tired, irritable, and sleepless. Those with GAD can’t simply “think positively” to overcome their disorder.

How to Reduce Everyday Stress and Anxiety

Exercising, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep are some of the best and easiest ways to prevent anxiety. 

Breathing exercises—simply taking a moment to breathe deeply during emotional or psychological upheavals—have been used for centuries as the cornerstone of meditation. If you don’t think meditation works, try to find a stressed-out Buddhist monk.

Affirmation exercises are also useful for keeping anxiety from taking over, especially in stressful situations. Recently, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University published a study in the journal PLOS One that says even a quick self-affirmation exercise can reduce stress and improve problem-solving skills.

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