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Stress and Anxiety

Stress is an inevitable part of life; we all experience it. Although a certain level of stress can be useful to us, too much stress can make life difficult.

If the demands of the challenges that we face outweigh our perceived ability to cope with those challenges, then we experience stress. Stress provokes physical changes in the body that are designed to help us take on difficulties and dangers. With sudden challenges, like unintentionally stepping out in front of a car, being asked a tough question in an interview or walking past someone who looks threatening on a dark night, we notice that our heart beings to pound, breathing quickens, muscles become tense, and we may start to sweat. This is sometimes known as the ‘fight or flight response’, and once the threat or difficulty has been tackled or has passed, these physical changes usually diminish relatively quickly.

However, if you are feeling constantly stressed – by a demanding workload, relationship problems, a new baby on the way, or concerns about money, your health or family – your body stays in a state of high alert and you may develop stress-related symptoms.

Stress can have profound effects how you feel physically and emotionally, on what and how you think, and also on how you behave. There are many signs of stress, and people often note changes in the following:

  • How you feel physically:
    • tense and ‘wound up’
    • feeling tired or exhausted
    • having ‘knots in your stomach’ and no appetite
    • difficulty sleeping
    • headaches and muscle soreness
    • dizziness and light headedness

  • How you feel emotionally:
    • distressed and overwhelmed
    • irritability
    • anxious or fearful
    • a drop in self-esteem

  • Difficulty with thinking clearly:
    • concentrating
    • racing thoughts
    • constant worries
    • finding it hard to make decisions

  • How you behave:
    • at people
    • increased alcohol use or smoking more
    • comfort eating
    • withdrawing from others
    • avoiding things or putting things off
    • taking risks

We can't always prevent stress but sharing your problems with trusted family or friends, making a plan about what we can do to tackle the problems, making more time for interests and hobbies and getting enough sleep can help us to manage stress better.

It is important, if you can, to address the sources of stress in your life because avoiding facing your problems can lead to things getting worse. However, it is not always possible to change a stressful situation, at least not immediately and, unfortunately, maybe not ever. If there's nothing that you can do about it right now, plan what you can do in the future and when you will do it, and try to distract yourself with something else in the meantime, while reminding yourself that you have a plan if your mind tries to pull you back into worrying.

When something is lost forever or cannot ever really be changed, such as the loss of a loved one, a fire destroying your possessions or being diagnosed with a life-changing illness, this can be incredibly hard to deal with. In these situations, we sometimes churn over how unfair it all feels or how we desperately want things to go back to how they were. This is rarely helpful.

An alternative is to acknowledge that you wish that things could be different, and willingly choose to accept the situation as it is (this is absolutely not the same as giving up, or bitterly and begrudgingly giving in), and refocus your energies on something else: whatever is still in your control, what you can still enjoy, the people and things that are still in our life or what you could do in the future.

So, if stress is essentially the feeling of being under too much pressure and not being able to manage, what is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of unease accompanied by thoughts that something bad might happen. This could be in a general sense or related to something specific. It feels physically and emotionally very much like stress, being tense and on edge, but often with stress, once you feel able to cope, the feelings fade. However, with anxiety, often the fears and worries continue leading to increasing distress and interference.

Sometimes significant and catastrophic experiences, or repeated lower intensity experiences can lead to anxiety, or trigger anxiety when it is not really needed. If you feel distressed much of the time, even if there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason, or if anxiety comes out of the blue and is so intense that you feel like ‘a rabbit caught in the headlights’, then you may have a problem with anxiety.

Here are some common and treatable anxiety problems:

  • intense, irrational fear of everyday objects and situations (phobias)
  • repeated intense bouts of panic where you fear that your physical or mental health might be in immediate danger – for example, you worry that the intense physical sensations are a sign that you could be having a heart attack or ‘going crazy’ (panic disorder)
  • repeated intense bouts of worry where you fear that you have a serious health condition even when medical tests have revealed no abnormality, or extreme worry that you could develop a problem at some point in the future – for example, you worry that the physical sensations are a sign that you have cancer (health anxiety)
  • avoiding going outside due to a fear of panic attacks, or something going wrong and you won’t be able to cope or no one will help you (agoraphobia)
  • repetitive worrying about a wide variety of everyday things which causes significant interference and distress (generalised anxiety disorder)
  • intrusive thoughts that keep coming to your mind, which seem to indicate something bad about you or that something bad will happen unless you act to stop it, and associated actions that you feel that you have to carry out to prove that you are a good person or to stay safe (obsessive compulsive disorder)
  • intense excessive worry about social situations, or an extreme fear of embarrassment, rejection or humiliation (social anxiety disorder)
  • repeated vivid ‘flashbacks’ about a traumatic event, and a sense of current threat and persistent anxiety despite the event being over (post- traumatic stress disorder)

Psychological treatment has been found to be very effective in helping people to recover from anxiety disorders. I have worked in a specialist anxiety disorders clinic and have successfully treated many people with a range of difficulties with anxiety.

For more information about how to overcome anxiety, contact Dr Alex.