Managing Stress and Anxiety

By: David Lechnyr, LCSW

It’s not surprising that any type of stress can affect us. What we often overlook is that this tends to be a cumulative effect that can affect our tolerance for change, our likelihood of getting sick and even how much we might be able to adapt to new problems.

This isn’t limited to just unpleasant stress; even good stress can take a toll on our body. One of the common ways a therapist might help you determine how much stress you’ve actually faced is the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory. The consequences of unanticipated stress can have a tremendous impact on your ability to live a healthy and happier life.

Stress, unlike anxiety, is primarily a emotional feeling and can cause thoughts like:

  • I find it hard to wind down
  • I tend to over-react to situations
  • I feel that I’m using a lot of nervous energy
  • I find myself getting agitated
  • I find it difficult to relax
  • I find myself intolerant of anything that keeps me from getting on with what I was doing
  • I feel that I am rather touchy

Anxiety is Often Misunderstood

Anxiety controls us, keeping the most rational of us in fear and unable to cope. It’s a serious condition that affects over 40 million adults, can often be accompanied by extreme depression and panic attacks, and is often left untreated in one out of three people. In trying to overcome anxiety, we can often make things worse. By trying to control everything that happens around us, we end up struggling even more than is necessary. When we focus on the outcomes of a stressful situation, we end up multiplying our fears in our desire to run to safety. The main difference between stress and anxiety is that anxiety causes excessive physical sensations, such as:

  • Dry mouth
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Trembling (eg, in the hands)
  • Being worried about situations in which you might panic and be seen as foolish
  • Feeling close to panic
  • Being aware and concerned about your heart beating or pulse rate
  • Feeling scared without any good reason

All Stressed Up and Nowhere to Go

People think that stress and anxiety is something that happens when one has too many negative things happening. In reality, stress is any demand made up on the body. Understanding issues in how our body is affected by stress is critical to one’s long-term health.

To understand stress, we must remember four important concepts:

  1. Some stress is important for growth and change.
  2. The lack of stress, therefore, is stressful!
  3. Too much stress is also stressful.
  4. What is required is that we find a middle ground where one learns to manage how they handle and encounter stress.

Pacing and Stress

We live in a fast-paced society where we feel that we have to accomplish things quickly. We also have the feeling that we might as well do it ourselves forcing us to take on more and more tasks all the time. This is accompanied by the feeling that others just will not do it as well as we do so we have no choice but to do it ourselves. Our impatience, desire to have things quickly, and the need to do it all over time becomes both intoxicating and exhausting.

Beyond this, we enjoy the high we get from dealing with constant crises and the rush to accomplish everything as quickly. On top of this, we also have the need to experience, to do, and to always be busy and moving. When feeling good, we rush to accomplish as much as possible before we crash again. We work until we feel exhausted and overwhelmed and then wonder why we crash and suffer increased pain, fatigue, and exhaustion.

Stress and our Body

When we ignore how stress is affecting our lives, our body makes a decision that it will shut us down. Because stress goes to the weakest bodily part we will experience stress as an increase in back pains, headaches, stomach pains, allergies, Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, allergies, and related problems. Because we all have weak spots the body becomes an equal employment opportunity site for the over-stressed. What this means is that stress body symptoms have a purpose to help stop us–slow us up in our lives.

Perfectionism and the Need to Control

In our need to control life, we become stuck in the need to have everything perfect. This need for perfectionism is related to our mistaken belief that having everything in order will bring us control and comfort in life. Perfectionism comes out also as co-dependency where one tries to control everything, everyone, and every situation in an almost addictive fashion where one is focused on too much caring and too much helping. Out of perfectionism also comes a sense of guilt because one is never able to do enough or to accomplish it good enough. This leads to continuing frustration, the inability to sit still, and the need to be always on the go doing and accomplishing things.

The Unexpected Impact of Stress

Research has shown that stress is the single most important factor that can shorten one’s life and keep your mind confused and disorganized. Most of us know that we can look at others and tell that they have aged beyond their years because of the continuing pressures and stress that they have been under.

However, what really matters is not how someone looks, but what is happening inside of a person’s body. The stress hormones that are released when one is under stress, or in a continual state of stress, impacts the body in adverse ways. When under stress chemicals are released into the body. These chemicals are released by the adrenal cortex, a pair of small glands perched on top of the kidneys, in response to stress. The released of these chemicals increase the physical and metabolic processes as part of the fight or flight survival response. Blood pressure goes up, sugar floods the circulatory system and the one’s heart rate increases.

All of this causes a great deal of wear and tear on the body and our mind which over time starts to take it’s toll on functions such as memory, the immune response, the ability to deal with damaging free radical chemicals in the body necessary to fight off heart and cancer disease.

Solutions to Stress

One of the critical elements in helping the person to deal with stress has to do with their attitude toward stress. The more one feels that they can affect some level of control over the situation, the less stress they will experience. The more one lets go of anger, frustration, upset, impatience, fears and frustrations, the more one will start to feel a reduction in one’s physical stress reactions.

Further, resilient people know that in the face of stress they are mandated to fall apart and feel exhausted. They also know that with time they will recover and return to normal functioning again. They also have learned that they cannot handle everything. They are perfectionists who have control over everything. They have also learned that it is critical to take breaks, to get away from it all frequently, and to have periods of time of solitude where they are alone and allow themselves time to recover.

They have also come to recognize that body symptoms are early warning systems that are alerting them to the stress that they have experienced. There is a decision to take things slower, to walk more, to exercise, and to do things that are not competitive in nature. Beyond this, there is a realization that the most important thing that one can do to help manage their stress is to say NO when asked to take on just a little more.

The desire to save others, or to not offend others pushes people to agree to things that they should not be taking on regardless of the cause. Saying NO is critical to learn in order to pay attention to what one’s body is capable to doing.

If one continues to push themselves to do and experience all then one will continue to have intense periods of activity followed by intense periods of being physically exhausted, in pain, and immobilized. What has to be realized is that when one continues to live under intense stress without limits, then the body will shut down in order to provide for a break because we are not human doing machines.

Learning from Stress

Sometimes, people do not overcome pain and other stress-related body symptoms, because one’s body needs to keep them down. There is a lack of trust that the person themselves will stop and pace themselves. As a result, the body becomes a friend that stops one permanently until one becomes mentally healthy enough to learn to be more self-regulating.

  • We have to learn how to stop doing several things at once.
  • We have to learn to slow down and take life less seriously.
  • We have to stop looking for the one simple solution that will solve everything.
  • We have to know that life is a journey where we are responsible for developing ourselves in new ways rather than just pushing harder.

We need to learn from all of this in order to avoid repeating our own personal history again and again. When stress is useful, we grow, adapt and learn. When we refuse to listen to it in the right way, it binds us, captures us and holds us hostage.