Recognizing the Signs of Stress and Anxiety

Mental health is not something one possesses or lacks, but a universal aspect of the human experience, says Marie-Josée Bellemare, Director of Wellness at Tennis Canada. A big part of managing mental health is recognizing the signs of stress and anxiety.

While stress, she says, can have a positive effect, often igniting increased productivity and focus, it can also have a negative impact, triggering anxiety and unnecessary suffering. The stress response is related to something external and goes away when the impetus goes away, but anxiety, she explains, is more like a reaction to stress that causes negative thoughts to spiral.

“Let’s say I want to cross the street and I see a car coming,” Bellemare says. “The stress response will get me out of the way, and when the car passes, my stress goes away. If I’m getting more anxious, I might be overthinking, ‘Maybe cars are dangerous,’ or ‘Maybe I should not cross the street anymore.’ Your thoughts are persisting even when the threat is gone.”

When anxiety persists, it can significantly impact your overall health. You may experience increased irritability, reduced patience, decreased focus, and difficulty sleeping. Additionally, it can contribute to fatigue, digestive issues and strain your relationships with others.

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Bellemare, whose role involves assisting athletes, coaches, parents, and staff in implementing well-being strategies and connecting them with necessary resources when needed, acknowledges that stress and anxiety are inevitable aspects of life. Part of managing mental health is becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings, identifying painful thought patterns, and working to reframe them.

“One way to reframe is to picture a best friend or someone you really love going through that same situation,” says Bellemare. “What would you tell that friend? Likely it’s going to be more positive and helpful thoughts. That can help people reframe, even if they tend to be negative towards themselves.”

If mental wellness is neglected, negative coping mechanisms, such as overeating, overtraining, procrastination, avoidance of tasks and excessive social media use, can emerge. Rather than merely indulging in occasional rewards like a massage, effective strategies involve integrating habits that positively influence daily life. This may include scheduling time to socialize with people that make you feel good, taking brief breaks throughout the day to stretch and be mindful, and cultivating awareness of sleep patterns, diet, and environmental influences, she says.

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It’s time to seek professional help if you’ve attempted to implement strategies but symptoms persist, interfering with your daily life. This may manifest as difficulty maintaining positive relationships with family, focusing at work, or being on time.

Throughout the country, various organizations can connect you with licensed mental health practitioners, catering to both sports-related needs and those of the general population. Additionally, many workplaces offer employee assistance programs. However, a practical starting point is often your family doctor, whom you’re already familiar with and who can connect you with valuable resources. Find more mental health resources at the link here.

Ultimately, Bellemare says it’s about understanding when matters are beyond our control. While we may not be able to influence current world events, we can manage when and how much we engage with the news. Similarly, we can’t dictate the weather, but can dress accordingly. Recognizing stress triggers, whether they stem from novel and unpredictable situations like pregnancy or perceived threats to our ego such as someone doubting our abilities, is crucial.

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Allowing ourselves to feel our feelings and put stressors into perspective can empower us to create distance and manage them more effectively.

“Bottling up emotions can make it harder to self-regulate,” says Bellemare. “When our body is talking to us with symptoms, it’s an opportunity to tune in.”

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