Ours is an anxious and stressed out age. A recent Google search for “stress” came up with more than 1.5 billion hits. Stress is an acknowledged and acceptable side effect of our fast-paced society. If your lifestyle is slow-paced and stress free, you are likely to be advised to “get a life.” Anxiety has also escalated in recent years due to the increasing violence in our society as evidenced by school and other mass shootings.
Stress is often equated with worry, pressure and negative situations. In reality, positive situations can be stressful as well. For example, getting married and getting divorced are both highly rated stressors, as are losing a job and starting a new job. The common denominator is change, which is always accompanied by a certain amount of stress. Emotional conflict, illness, pushing yourself too hard in either work or play, and even extremes in weather are experienced by our bodies as stressful.
Stress activates the body’s protective alert system, signaling danger even when there is none. As the body gears up for fight or flight, it also releases the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. At the same time the body’s production of the “feel good hormones”—noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin—is depleted. These chemicals, produced in the brain, give us energy, create a feeling of pleasure, stabilize our moods and allow us to relax and get a restful night’s sleep.
If a body constantly releases stress hormones and is not given sufficient time to recover and establish healthy levels of “feel good hormones,” you begin to feel tired, anxious and stressed out. You may have difficulty sleeping or trouble focusing on the task at hand. Living with constant worry, fatigue and irritability are signs of generalized anxiety.
If you live in a constant state of anxiety, you may find yourself experiencing a panic attack, often mistaken for a heart attack. Symptoms may include:
- Rapid heart rate
- Dizziness or faintness
- Trembling or shaking
- A choking sensation
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Numbness or tingling in hands and feet
- Fears of going crazy or losing control
- A feeling of unreality, as if it is happening to someone else
Sometimes panic disorder evolves into agoraphobia. At its most intense, agoraphobia, defined as a fear of open spaces, can keep one housebound. It is more likely, however, to show up as avoiding crowded public places or places that feel confining. Think Saturday at a busy shopping mall or the middle seats in a crowded theatre.
The good news is that anxiety disorders respond very well to treatment. A therapist will help you get started, but managing anxiety is ultimately a DIY challenge. To reduce anxiety and stay free of panic you will need to adopt some or all of the following practices.
- Deep breathing, or belly breathing, is the first line of defense against anxiety and panic. If you find anxiety building, inhale through your nose to the count of four. Exhale through your mouth to the count of eight. Repeat four times. This literally calms your body and gives your logical brain a chance to work to reduce the sense of threat. Over time you will learn to recognize the signs and be able to calm yourself down before panic takes over.
- Practice mindfulness. Pay attention to what you are thinking and notice how it affects your physical response. The most common anxiety thought is “what if….” followed by a worst-case scenario. When a negative “what if” shows up, as it automatically will if you are anxious, try turning it on its head with a positive “what if.”
For example, instead of settling into “what if we have a wreck on the way to our destination;” ask yourself, “what if we arrive safely and have a great time?” Both are possibilities and neither has happened yet. So, why not focus on the potential positive outcome rather than the negative? Thinking of all the negative possibilities will not help you cope if something bad happens. It will only create anxiety and set you up for undesirable outcomes.
- Exposure therapy is gradually confronting situations you have been avoiding because they make you anxious. For example, if you avoid driving due to anxiety, start by driving short distances at a time of day with little traffic. Slowly add more distance and heavier traffic situations.
- Regular vigorous exercise as well as walking, yoga and tai chi help reduce anxiety. The best exercise is anything that you enjoy enough to do regularly.
- A healthy diet that limits sugar and other refined carbohydrates and includes lots of fruits and vegetables, reduces stress by stabilizing blood sugar and increasing energy.
- Plan some down time into every day, if only 15 minutes. Be intentional about including down time in your weekends, working with partners and family members to make it happen for everyone.
- Learn to relax your body, one muscle group at a time. It helps to consciously contract and relax your muscles while deep breathing.
- Draw on spiritual resources by taking time to meditate and focus on God’s love and care.
Medication is often helpful and must be managed under the supervision of a physician. Avoid self-medicating with alcohol, sugar, excessive caffeine or illegal drugs.
If you are over-stressed and struggling with anxiety don’t despair. With help and determination, you can overcome anxiety.