Your Health

Managing stress and anxiety

Salmon dip.
Photo of Amanda Nash. JULIE-ANNE McCARTHY
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, February 24, 2017

Anxiety is a basic emotion that we all share and experience at times.

The automatic symptoms (such as a rapid heart rate, quick breathing and tense stomach) are triggered when we are anxious and warn us when we need to be careful. These warning signs have helped humans survive over the course of our existence.

For example, if we are near a cliff, our heart rate goes up, our breath becomes shallow, and our bodies alert us that we are too close to the edge. Once the threat has passed, the feelings of anxiety should subside and our heart rate should slow down, leaving us in a calm state.

For some people however, this feeling of high stress exists even when there is no threat. Many of us will go through periods in our lives when we are under a lot of stress and feel anxious a lot of the time. This is called chronic stress. In some cases, ongoing stress may even begin to interfere with normal daily activities and could lead to an anxiety disorder.

Chronic stress or anxiety is harmful for our overall health and well-being. It can reduce our immune system’s ability to fight off colds and flus, can affect our ability to get a good night’s sleep, and can impact our mood and our relationships with others. For some, anxiety can make it difficult to go to work or engage in fun activities. If the stress goes unmanaged for a long period of time, it can even have a negative effect on our heart’s functioning.

The good news is that there is a wide variety of effective strategies that we can use to manage stress and anxiety. Activities like taking time to work on problem solving, taking a break from a heavy workload, disconnecting from electronics, practising mindfulness (the art of living in the moment rather than worrying about the past or the future), spending time outdoors, engaging in regular physical activity, or listening to music, can all help to cope with stress.

Activities that promote good mental health and reduce stress are not one-size fits all. Experts recommend taking small steps: start with one new strategy at a time and stick with it for a few weeks or months. Pay attention to how it impacts your mood, sleep, and energy levels or ability to get through your day. By trying one new strategy at a time you can discover what works best for you and then use the strategy in times of high stress.  

For individuals who are experiencing more severe or ongoing anxiety, speaking to a mental health professional, such a counsellor or a psychologist is often helpful. If you find that you are unable to get to work because of anxiety, if anxiety keeps you from trying new things or makes it difficult to keep up with friends and family, or if you feel a lot of distress or worry for much of the day, then it is time to reach out.

Your family doctor can make a referral to an appropriate professional service or you can visit a drop-in counselling service. Some workplaces have Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) or extended health insurance which covers a certain number of sessions with a counsellor. Many schools and post-secondary institutions have counsellors on site. In the event of a mental health crisis, there are services available to the public open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, such as Mobile Crisis Services and crisis lines. To learn more about ways to manage anxiety and to find local resources, please visit or .

Managing stress has many benefits for your mental and physical health, such as better ability to sleep, having a stronger immune system, and truly being present for the good moments. 

Although stress is a normal part of life, there are times when anxiety may become more frequent or intense and may interfere with normal activities. Having a variety of strategies to manage stress helps to build resilience and increases our ability to enjoy life. The key is to slow down, keep it simple, and remember that one small thing can make a big difference.

Julie-Anne McCarthy is a mental health promotion program specialist with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, February 24, 2017.

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