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Suffering from an anxiety disorder means stress is never far away. What are some ways to manage your stress, both on your own and with the help of trained professionals?

It's only been a couple of decades since the word “stress” has become common in human life: most people in widely varying circumstances can tell you they're under some sort of stress. However, by the definition proposed by Hans Selye, stress is “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand”, and assuming that this concept includes the cognitive and psychological factors that come with everyday situations, anyone can be affected.

Then, why do people with anxiety disorders take it the hardest? Stress and anxiety disorders (such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Disorder, Social Phobia, Specific Phobias, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder) go hand in hand, given that they have a similar physiological response in the central and peripheral nervous system to restore homeostasis (natural balance) and face stressors.

Can stress coping techniques help with anxiety disorders?

Affecting more than 33 percent of the world population at some point in their lifetime, you might assume that the diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders diagnosis are highly effective and that stress management techniques are a routine part of their management. However, the numbers show that most patients don't reach out to health care systems and when they do, in some cases they run into an overpopulated system.

Considering the financial burden that this public health issue represents to most of the population, further research should be carried out into treatments and coping mechanisms. The good news is that there are effective ways to manage stress that are available to everyone.

Stress management techniques that you can use if you suffer from an anxiety disorder

The following coping mechanisms are included in evidence-based investigations, some of them can be independently learned and represent low to zero cost, depending on their complexity. We will divide them into two groups: those you can practice by yourself, and those with special requirements.

Stress relief methods you can develop and practice on your own

  • Yoga. The practice of yoga integrates several ways to deal with stress: breathing exercises, meditation exercises and posture sequences, which reduces cortisol, activates the parasympathetic system and other neurobiological consequences that ultimately modulate and reduce stress responses. Yoga postures and poses also help with flexibility and physical awareness of sensations, contributing to a mindful and calmed state of mind. Some of its benefits are that there are multiple ways of learning it and it's also useful as a physical therapy method.
  • Meditation. Meditation is a simple and easy practice, based on concentrating on one thing (mostly breathing, but in the case of “transcendental meditation” it can be a “mantra” or repetition of a sequence of sounds as well) until achieving an awake but deeply restful state, that ultimately has great effects on cognitive relaxation in anxiety disorders. For better results, it's recommended to increase the time of practice until accomplishing a 20-minute session, twice a day.
  • Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction (MBSR). Away from the common misconception of mindfulness being part of any religion, it is actually a method that increases a non-judgemental awareness of the moment-to-moment experience. It's usually linked to meditation but it can be used as a permanent way of going through life. Its systematic use can influence brain regions involved in regulating attention, awareness and emotion. To implement it, there are multiple apps, YouTube videos, and even magazines dedicated to it.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). This technique (which is combined with deep breathing, does not cause side effects or involves additional costs, and can be performed individually and be self-taught) is based on alternately tense and relax specific muscle groups in a sequential pattern. The most basic way to apply it is with eyes closed, place tension for approximately 10 seconds on legs, chest, abdomen, arms or face, and then release it for 20 seconds before continuing to the next muscle group.
  • Autogenic Training (AT). This is a self-relaxation technique that involves a set of sentences/visual imagination exercises said silently in your head, which ultimately will develop a determined psychophysiological response such as relaxation and breathing control, and decrease in blood pressure and heart rate. It can be learned either by reading about it or watching a trainer, and mastered within four to six months of practice for a few minutes every day.

Methods for which you need specialized training or assistance

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Through the theory of how cognitive change may influence behavior, this widely studied form of psychotherapy was build upon the process of learning to replace negative thoughts and habits with life-enhancing beliefs and thought patterns. This technique requires a time-limited series of encounters with a clinician, and uses strategies, exercises and patient´s homework to change cognitive and behavioral established structures.
  • Biofeedback. This system is a more specialized way of learning how to control physiological responses in front of stress, by monitoring brainwaves, heart rate, breathing, muscle activity and skin temperature with the help of biofeedback therapists and instruments, and face the alterations in these physical parameters with changes in certain emotions, thoughts and conduct. Eventually, and probably in three to six months, the individual can learn how to control their physiological functions without any equipment. It does require special training, money, and particular locations at first.
Is one technique better than the other ones? Stress can lead to considerable deleterious effects, especially among people with anxiety disorders. Each case is different when it comes to choosing a specific and effective way to deal with it, but it's very important to choose a coping mechanism (or a couple of them).

Other small lifestyle changes with fewer empirical data such as a balanced diet based on fruits and vegetables, reducing coffee and alcohol intake, listening to music and aromatherapy have also been used to handle stress in patients suffering from an anxiety disorder.

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  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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