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Running scared

Psychology expert Dr Alice Boyes offers six tips for managing anxiety when you’re super busy 

Work-life balance is a great overall goal, but for many of us, there are periods when work takes priority. You might be an entrepreneur launching your start-up, a magazine publisher with a monthly deadline, a homeowner doing a major DIY renovation project, an accountant in the middle of tax season, or a student sitting final exams. Sometimes doing less isn’t an option in the short term.

So how can you best cope with stress and anxiety during these periods?

1. Compartmentalise

If there are 50 things on your to-do list that all need to be done in the next two weeks, that’s going to feel overwhelming. Your working memory can only hold around seven things simultaneously. To manage this, split your day into chunks: for instance, schedule three things to do this morning, and allocate the remaining tasks for the afternoon. If that feels too much, focus in on just the one task you’re working on right now. 

2. Alternate high- and low-anxiety tasks

Identify tasks that are essential but don’t require huge amounts of creativity or concentration, and that don’t provoke anxiety for you. After you’ve done an intellectually taxing task, give yourself a mental break with an easy task. Alternating tasks this way can make your workload feel easier to cope with.

3. Identify where you might be holding tension

When we’re feeling anxious, we often tense up. It’s part of the fight, flight or freeze response. You might notice your hands are curled into fists or your shoulders are up around your ears. Shaking out your fingers and toes, adjusting your posture and doing a few gentle neck rolls can help release tension. Over time, aim to become more attuned to when you tense up. 

4. Catch any repetitive behaviours 

When we’re anxious, we often engage in ritualised or repetitive behaviours as a way of calming ourselves. This is a natural response to anxiety but can be harmful if you find yourself, say, pulling out your own hair, snacking excessively or rigidly working on a small aspect of a task for too long. In a 2015 study, published in Current Biology and co-authored by Victoria University’s John Shaver, study participants who showed higher heart rates in response to an anxiety-provoking task displayed a greater number of repetitive behaviours. Doing a few minutes of slow breathing will calm your heart rate, and can help restore your cognitive flexibility.
For more severe issues, such as hair pulling, cognitive-behavioural therapy is often an effective treatment.

5. Prepare a comfort kit – for now and later 

Being in any type of physical discomfort will lower your capacity to cope with stress and anxiety. If I’m working long hours, I’m prone to getting dehydrated, so I like to have at the ready eye drops, a good moisturiser, and straws to help me drink more water. Figure out what you need to feel physically comfortable while working. It could be as simple as a change of clothes so you’re comfortable when working late in the office, or stocking up on snacks that work best for you. Physical supports can help too: when I was a student, using different desks and chairs and having my own gel wrist rest alleviated the wrist pain I had been experiencing. 

Periods of being frantic can be inevitable but they shouldn’t be open-ended. Plan a treat for later, such as a weekend away, dinner out or a casual BBQ with friends. This gives you something pleasant to anticipate, and gives your partner or family a sense of security about when they’ll have you back as a more present member of the household. 

Dr Alice Boyes is the author of The Anxiety Toolkit, 2015, Piatkus

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