THE BLOG

3 Ways Stress Can Help Beat Anxiety

09/15/2011 08:46 am ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011
  • Ben Michaelis, Ph.D. Clinical psychologist; Author, 'Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy'; Co-founder, Downtown Clinicians Collective

Yes, you read it correctly. I am suggesting that you add stress to your life in order to reduce anxiety. Stress is good for you. It just needs a new publicist.

Stress and anxiety are different from each other, yet the terms are often used interchangeably. Say it with me: Stress is good -- I must admit, I felt a bit like Gordon Gekko while I was writing that, but really, stress is just a synonym for pressure. And pressure is a motivator. Without enough of it you won't get anything done. Obviously, too much pressure can be overwhelming, but if you have too little pressure you may not even try to do things, which is worse. It is better to burn out than rust out.

On the other hand, anxiety is bad. Profound statements like that are the reason I get paid the big bucks -- anxiety is a false alarm that is set off by something, anything, that you perceive as a threat. Triggers are everywhere: 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 personal circumstances.

Once triggered, your alarm can be as irritating as any ear-shattering siren or the wailing of an infant in pain. 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 begins looking 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 -- 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. This reminds me of a patient I once worked with who was afraid of flying, but she had to take a flight to meet her fiancée's family in Europe. She told me that she worked out all of the possible scenarios about what could go wrong, which actually didn't help her feel any better. As it turns out, she and her fiancée had gotten into a minor car accident before leaving the city -- the one scenario she had not considered. I call this the "1,001st scenario." The one you don't think up is probably the one that will happen -- thus, the only way to win is not to play.

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 and emotional 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 to your day, so you will have less room in your life for anxiety:

Create. 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.

Physical Exercise. Look, let's face it, except for Glen Rice, 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.

Mental Gymnastics. 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.