Managing Stress and Anxiety
Updated: Jun 25, 2021
Throughout my professional life, I helped people work through stress and anxiety. This article highlights some of my experience with clients, and part of my own journey too.
The Cambridge Dictionary Online defines anxiety as 'an uncomfortable feeling of nervousness or worry about something that is happening or might happen in the future'. Most of us can probably relate to this in some way or another, and I think it is unlikely that any of us will get through our life without ever being anxious as defined here.
The stress response
Stress or anxiety can be as a result of a worried thought, or a specific situation or event. The amygdala in our brain (which contributes to emotional processing) sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system. This triggers the fight or flight response with a burst of energy that enables our body to respond to the perceived threat. The response happens extremely quickly, even before the brain has a chance to let us know what is happening. This can leave us feeling that we are in danger or there is an immediate threat, when in fact often, there is no danger and no threat.
When I was learning to drive, I felt apprehensive and cautious and had put off learning to drive until I was well into my 40s. I was conscious of being a relative beginner on the road amongst capable and experienced drivers. I thought about how I was in charge of such a powerful machine, and the sense of responsibility about being on the road was overwhelming. Over time, I was able cope by slowly and carefully focusing on my breath. I also managed to promote thoughts, such as 'I am capable of being in control; I can cope with this road. I have driven down this road before and managed okay. It will be worthwhile for me to manage, and it will improve my life immensely if I can drive'. I have illustrated this below.
To some degree, I never ever felt fully calm when I was learning to drive. However, I was able to regulate my thoughts and feelings enough to make it possible for me to continue my driving journey. The anxiety I felt when I was learning to drive was related to something quite specific, and it would not have had a major impact on my life if I continued to remain a non-driver. Also, there were not a lot of other stressors going on in my life at the time, so I was able to cope without too much impact on me.
When anxiety adversely impacts on your life
But what about when you have to cope with many stressors in your life? For example, coping with parenthood for the first time, as well as returning to a demanding job and looking after a sick parent at the same time, would be challenging to all of us. We may feel overwhelmed, but at the same time, just about coping. We are ‘loaded’, but not overloaded.
But every day brings new stressors to add to the mix, and eventually, do begin to feel overloaded. Like a bucket of water, seeping through cracks that up until now have just about been strong enough to hold together.
It is not always be possible to identify the triggers for anxiety, and a sense of being anxious or out of control may have been part of your life for a long time. Anxiety can feel overwhelming. Perhaps a sense of having limited control on yourself or your environment; or feeling tense and unable to relax. Thoughts may be all over the place, and perhaps you feel fear or trepidation about the future. Panic attacks can also be a response to anxiety and stress.
Finding tools and techniques that work for you and practicing them in your daily life may be a helpful starting point. For example, this might be noticing when your worried thoughts are taking a life of their own, and brining yourself back to the present. It could be focusing on your senses outside yourself, such as what you can see, smell, feel and hear. Our breath can also be a helpful anchor.
For me, this can mean telling myself that a perceived fear about something is just a thought, and I don’t have to believe the 'story' it is telling me. I also find that when I am in tune with my emotions, not pushing them down, or fighting them is helpful. I might 'breath into' the emotion, noticing it softening and dissipating.
The more I accepted and rode through the uncomfortable feeling that comes from doing a task that is new or out of my comfort zone, such as learning to drive, the easier it became, and the less anxious I felt about it over time. It was by no means an overnight fix, but as I noticed and became more aware about what was happening in my mind and body, (and utilised helpful tools and techniques), the more in control I was.
However anxiety manifests itself, we can start to help our self by starting to understand our physiological responses, and develop effective tools and techniques that are right for us.
When self-regulating is difficult or impossible
For some people, emotions may be too difficult to self-regulate, and worry or anxiety may be a constant feature. This may be because there is a difference in how the brain's signals work, and seeking medical advice may be the best way forward.
I have included some links to external resources below that may be helpful to you.
Thank you for reading my page. I welcome your feedback, as well as any comments and suggestions you may have about this article.
Link to the Royal College of Psychiatrists UK
The NHS page on 'Generalised anxiety disorder in adults'