Anxiety and Stress: How Does Our Body React?

Anxiety and Stress: How Does Our Body React?

Have you ever wondered what’s happening in your body when anxiety and stress are triggered?

Stress and Anxiety are “fight or flight” responses, which allow us to react faster and more appropriately, depending on the situation. These have been incorporated in us for centuries; they were part of what kept us alive in the face of various predators.

Today, however, we express these responses even though the “dangers” around us are entirely different. Sometimes, as in the case of anxiety, we just “assume” the “danger” and trigger this reaction, where many symptoms come to the surface.

Physiology behind Stress and Anxiety

Our brain controls many of our organism’s responses, voluntarily or involuntarily. In principle, we perceive the warning or danger signal, the initial trigger, where our brain understands that it must prepare the body to flee or fight quickly.

In order to do so, it acts through a system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), to which it sends a signal. This ANS is in turn divided into sympathetic and parasympathetic, which regulate different responses.

The reactions that occur in stress and anxiety have to do with the release of important hormones (such as adrenaline and noradrenaline) by the sympathetic nervous system. These products travel through our body triggering a set of different reactions that will end up “activating” it.

Now, let us quickly analyze some of the effects of this hormone in the context of a real-life scenario: an imminent danger is coming towards you (for example, a person tries to grab your purse). In this case, your reaction might be to flee. What does your body need to respond appropriately?

1) Heart rate: It must be increased to enhance the oxygen and nutrients that reach your muscles and tissues to maintain the flight response.

2) Blood vessels: Pressure must increase in the arteries and veins to improve blood flow to the muscles. This vasoconstriction is the origin of headache under conditions of stress or anxiety.

3) Lungs: In order to give more oxygen to the blood and thus reach the lungs, the airways must be widened and the breath rate increased.

4) Sweating: This is not nervousness. Under this response, your body temperature increases to improve metabolic reactions and promote other biological reactions, all these to respond better to the “danger” that approaches. Sweating is a compensation mechanism for this increase in temperature.

5) Intestine: It is time to stop everything! It is not time to eat or digest; it is time to flee from danger. Therefore, the intestinal contents are stopped, through spasms, which can cause pain.

6) Kidney: In a fear-inducing emergency, the body produces less urine in order to preserve the liquids we have. The same goes for salivary glands. Our brain isn’t sure how long the danger will last, so it goes into conservation mode.

These, and many other responses are necessary to be able to “run away” properly, and all are mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. This is part of what you suffer when you are under stress or with anxiety. They are also limited responses that only last a few minutes – if the original “dangerous” stimulus disappears” – but that may remain a little longer in people who constantly suffer from it.


Since our body responds to perceived dangers (Ex.:  Worried thoughts about what someone is thinking about you) in the same way as it does to genuine physical dangers (Ex. Rabid animal), it’s up to you to communicate with your body to assist it in deescalating the threat.

Tips for Finding the Off-Switch for Stress and Anxiety

Here are some quick tips for sending signals to your nervous system that will help it deescalate:

  • Self-Talk: Identify the “danger” thought triggering your anxiety. See if you can talk it off the ledge. Right-size your anxiety by talking back to any over-generalization, catastrophization, mind-reading, or future-telling. Sometimes examining the facts can ease your anxiety (ex. Is the worst-case scenario really as bad as you imagine?).
  • Diaphragmatic Breathing: Your body’s diaphragm is directly connected to the Vagus nerve, which helps regulate the on and off switch for your sympathetic nervous system. If you breath deeply using that muscle in your belly, you’ll notice your system start to slow.
  • Channeling the Anxiety for the Power of Good: Anxiety gives you a big burst of energy, focused concentration, and drive. Why not use it to help you make a plan, research options, weigh pros/cons, or spur on action!

If you’d like help with stress or anxiety, a counselor with Star Meadow Counseling is available to help!

Would you like to read more of our blogs about anxiety? Check out one of the links below!

Why I Think “Worthless” Isn’t a Feeling AND Why that Matters

Why I Think “Worthless” Isn’t a Feeling AND Why that Matters

Have you ever been so dejected or depressed that you began to question your worth as a person? What triggered that moment for you? Was it:

  • A rejection, break-up, or abandonment?
  • A harsh word or critique that hit like an arrow in the heart?
  • A failure to live up to your own expectations?
  • Feeling in over your head, burned out, or unable to perform?
  • Something else?

As counselors, we often hear clients describe their feeling during these moments as “worthless.” It’s as if some lack of performing, achieving, belonging, or approval could strip away a person’s value as a human, leaving them with a sense of emptiness.

Do you have a sense of self-worth that goes up and down? A conditional self-worth that is dependant on being liked or on your achievements? As you’ve perhaps experienced, having a conditional self-worth can be risky:

  • Perhaps you overwork, overachieve, and compulsively climb ladders trying to prove yourself. Do ever really reach the finish line or are you stuck on a hamster wheel constantly striving? Does that cost you time with your family or friends? If a setback occurs, do you name yourself “failure” and pay a cost with anxiety, depression, or a suicidal urge?
  • Perhaps you base self-worth on the condition of others’ approval (which can go up or down). Do you have a good or bad day depending on if someone else’s reactions to you? Does that ever lead you to over-committing or people-pleasing? Do you hold back, minimizing your voice in relationships? If a subtle rejection occurs, do you notice yourself having a big emotional response?

Perfectionism is the embodiment of achievement-oriented or approval-oriented self worth. Brene Brown describes perfectionism and its cost best:

“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfet, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”

-Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

It’s time to change how we think about WORTH. What if you could experience a form of self-worth that did not ebb and flow with your achievement or approval? Would you step off of the “conditional self-worth” rollercoaster? Wouldn’t it be amazing to experience security in your self-worth despite successes or failures!

I want to suggest two key strategies for revolutionizing your experience of self-worth.

  1. Clarify what you really feel when you say you feel “WORTHLESS.”

I want to suggest that “WORTHLESS” is a judgment NOT a feeling. It’s a proclamation of subjective self-assessment. It is more thought than it is emotion. These judgments are similarly not feelings:

  • Bad
  • Failure
  • Fat
  • Ugly
  • Stupid
  • Crazy

But, you might argue, “I DO feel strongly when I have those thoughts!” YES! A distorted negative self-evaluation would certainly evoke a strong feeling! Let’s see if we can clarify what you are really feeling in those moments. Perhaps one of these feeling words would more accurately describe the emotion that goes with that thought:

  • Disappointment
  • Shame
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Worry
  • Guilt

This perspective shifting skill is essential: Instead of going along with the “I’m worthless” judgment, NAME WHAT YOU’RE FEELING and WHY.

For example: “I’m feeling ashamed because I yelled at my kids.” “I am feeling afraid because I lost my job.” “I am feeling sad because she broke up with me.”

2. REDEFINE WORTH.

The striking reality is that there is no standard measurement of WORTH. There is not a test you can take, a medal you can earn, or a status you must reach. The concept of what defines self-worth is unscientific, self-determined, and deeply personal. YOU HAVE THE POWER to change your self-assessment.

What if you were to intentionally choose to believe WORTH is a birthright, something inherent in your humanness? I think that’s what the founders of our country believed when they wrote these words in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

WORTH does not have to be conditional. You can found your self-worth on the powerful certainty that you have sustaining value that can not be earned nor lost.


HYPOCRICY CHECK: Do you apply unconditional worth to other people better than to yourself?  For example, if you’re a parent, your child might make choices that make you lose their trust, but could they ever lose worth in your eyes? Never! You might already believe in unconditional self-worth, as it applies to others. Are you applying the same concept to yourself? If not, now’s the time. Take the leap of faith. It’s worth it!

Now, if we combine the name-your-feelings skill with the concept of unconditional self-worth, you can see how it’s possible to make mistakes, have setbacks, and receive rejection without it meaning anything at all about your worth as a human.

If you’d like help building a secure sense of self-worth (or overcoming your achievement- or approval-oriented perfectionism), a therapist at Star Meadow Counseling is available to help.

Read more of our blogs on self-worth:

Anxiety: Your Friend?

Anxiety: Your Friend?

Anxiety and panic attacks are uncomfortable. Sometimes anxiety is so physically uncomfortable that people experience heart palpitations, nausea, chest pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, or faintness. Sometimes anxiety symptoms worry someone so much that they call 911 or take themselves to the emergency room, only to be turned away after being assured that the problem is “just” anxiety.

In the counseling office, counselors often hear clients eager to alleviate and rid themselves entirely of anxiety. Certainly, relief would be nice, and some coping skills would be helpful. But what if honoring feelings of anxiety may help (in the end) to decrease anxiety? Before you say goodbye to your anxiety, consider the reasons why feeling anxious might be to your benefit.

Feeling anxiety may…

  • Be a catalyst for change.

People may feel persistently anxious when when something in their life needs to change. For example, if you err on the side of workaholism, burnout is a very real risk. Anxiety is your body’s way of signaling overload. It is alerting you to a need to say “no” to something on your plate. It can prompt you to challenge your list of have-to obligations.

  • Help you acclimate to new things.

Anxiety can be a sign that you are outside of your comfort zone. Anytime you do something new, anxiety is there to help you get your bearings, watch for “danger,” and minimize risk. Often, the more that you repeatedly experience being out of your comfort zone in a specific way, the more your comfort zone expands, and the less you need anxiety to help you be watchful.

  • Be self-honoring and validating.

When you tell yourself to “stop feeling anxious,” you are sending a message that there is something “bad” or wrong happening. That self-talk message can create a form of secondary anxiety– anxiety about having anxiety! These worried thoughts about the anxiety itself can increase tension (and add in guilt or shame), rather than alleviate stress. Instead, if you tell yourself that it’s okay to feel nervous or be panicked, they can begin to feel more okay with themselves and honor the good reasons why they might be anxious.

  • Ease a panic attack.

Most of the time, panic attacks are triggered by something stressful in your environment, then made worse by “danger” thoughts about the panic itself. Common catastrophic thoughts experienced during a panic attack include (but aren’t limited to):

  • “I shouldn’t be so anxious.”
  • “I’m having a heart attack.”
  • “Why is this happening again?”
  • “I’m going to faint.”
  • “I’m going to die.”
  • “My panic attack will never end. I can’t handle this.”

Panicked thoughts about your body’s experience of anxiety only make you more afraid. These thoughts feed your panic and make it difficult for your body to calm. In fact, how long a panic attack lasts might be somewhat in your control. If you can stop scaring yourself with catastrophic thoughts (or should-thoughts), the adrenaline from your fight-or-flight reaction will wear itself out in a few minutes.

Instead, try not to ignore what you’re feeling. Notice and feel the sensations of your anxiety or panic. Assure yourself that the feelings aren’t harmful (because they’re usually not). Don’t fight the feelings, but imagine yourself surfing them like a wave. The more you resist, the higher your anxiety; the more you accept what you’re feeling, the more quickly it can pass.

  • Increase Performance (at low to moderate levels)

Certainly high or persistent anxiety can be more of a hindrance than a help. However, at occasional low-to-moderate levels, anxiety prepares your body for action in a more productive manner. It increases drive, focus, clarity, strength, and stamina on intellectually stimulating tasks.

Anxiety is a normal human emotion that is safe (and helpful) for you to feel. Let yourself feel your feelings, but then move on. Anxiety has a tendency to take over if it becomes your primary focus. Stay engaged in practice of living life. A mental health counselor can help you build a customized tool box for coping (and making friends) with anxiety.

Want to read more about Anxiety? Check out these posts:

All about EMDR as Trauma Therapy

All about EMDR as Trauma Therapy

Have you heard of EMDR? Among therapists, it’s all the rage as an up-and-coming, evidenced based approach for trauma treatment. Because it is different than standard talk therapy, we thought you might have some questions. We’d love to help demystify EMDR as a form of trauma treatment.

 

What is EMDR?

Standing for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, EMDR is a specialized kind of therapy that allows traumatic memories to become desensitized, losing some of their emotional intensity. EMDR is an 8 step process. That process does NOT begin with the trauma processing itself. Instead, the therapist ensures that you have a stockpile of effective coping skills and resources to aid you in the trauma processing experience prior to beginning any sort of trauma processing. The goal throughout the therapy is to provide relief to trauma triggers and not to re-traumatize you in the re-telling of experiences. Only once a clear plan has been developed and coping skills are in place will the therapist guide you through the re-processing experience. Re-processing often involves specialized eye movements that the therapists guides you through while you simultaneously access a specific traumatic memory or severe fear. The two elements use both halves of your brain to more effectively neutralize the negative emotions and desensitizing the memory. The goal of EMDR is not to erase the memory, it’s to reprogram it so that it’s less traumatic.

 

What conditions can EMDR help with?

There are a lot of different situations in which EMDR can be helpful, making it popular for therapists and counselors around the world. It is best known for helping those clients who are recovering from a traumatic experience or those diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, research is indicating that EMDR may also be helpful with conditions such as anxiety/panic disorders, grief, severe fears or phobias, and even “common” problems such as self-esteem issues or anger issues.

 

How is it helpful with trauma?

There are a lot of ways the EMDR can be helpful to dealing with trauma. This specific kind of therapy can not only help someone heal from a trauma experience, but also improve their quality of life. For example, EMDR can be helpful with:

  • Identifying the root memory: One key step in the EMDR process is uncovering where the trauma comes from, which can be helpful in understand when, where, and how it started.
  • Processing the memory in a healthy way: EMDR is all about seeing the memory from a different point of view in terms of making it less traumatic and overwhelming. This perspective shifting plays a major role in the healing process.
  • Improving your quality of life:  EMDR tends to be helpful in reducing trauma triggers and reducing the impacts of trauma in your life.

 

What are the risks of EMDR therapy?

EMDR does not come without potential risks. Though EMDR tends to be gentle and stress-reducing, there is a potential risk of an increase in flashbacks, nightmares, or anxiety, usually in the short-term. Other memories may also resurface as trauma processing starts up that may be distressing. If you are in recovery from an addiction, EMDR processing may trigger feelings that, in the past, may have lead to a relapse. If you are a person in recovery (or actively use substances to cope with feelings), this will be something you should disclose to your therapist.

The EMDR therapists on the Star Meadow Counseling team will fully review the risks and benefits of EMDR therapy with you in helping determine if it is a therapeutic approach that might be a fit for you.

EMDR can offer real results for people dealing with trauma. For those looking for options alternative to traditional talk therapy, this may just be the right fit.

 

Want to read more from our blog? Check out one of these articles:

Why I Think “Worthless” Isn’t a Feeling AND Why that Matters

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Anxiety and Stress: How Does Our Body React?

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7 Top Mental Health Podcasts

Are you looking for a podcast to help you take better care of yourself and your mental health? I love the convenience of a podcast--- It's self-care you can access in your car, while you wash the dishes, or take the dog for a walk. Self-care is critically important to...

7 Top Mental Health Podcasts

7 Top Mental Health Podcasts

Are you looking for a podcast to help you take better care of yourself and your mental health? I love the convenience of a podcast— It’s self-care you can access in your car, while you wash the dishes, or take the dog for a walk. Self-care is critically important to a well-rounded and satisfying life!  Podcasts help with self-care in a way that only modern technology is able to do.

Let’s have a look at seven popular mental health podcasts that are waiting to show you the way:

1. The Hilarious World of Depression: Calling it out like it is, this podcast series is intended to bring the light to the often too-dark world of depression by combining it with humor.  If you’re looking for a education on mental health, specifically depression, and you want to enjoy it even on your darkest days, this free podcast is something to check out.  Find more information waiting for you at:https://www.facebook.com/thwod/

2. Headspace: Finding inner peace could be as simple as finding the right podcast to lead you down the path to relaxation.  Headspace is a popular due to its mobile app focus.  It offers guided meditation in both short and long sessions to fit every part of your life. It’s a favorite podcast for those struggling with stress and anxiety. Podcasts and blog posts can also be listened to and read, respectively, for free if looking for a more immersive experience.  Find more information at:https://www.headspace.com

3. Good Life Project: Listen to uplifting conversations with some of the biggest names in wellness– Brene Brown, Gretchen Rubin, Tim Ferriss, and more! The Good Life Project shares a new interview every week. When looking at something that is going to fit into your social media world and offer you a community to support you on your rough days, Good Life Project has got what you want.  They also offer a Facebook-based mental health group is a just that: a private community of people at all stages in mental health focus and you can belong to it and give and take within the group for free.  Offering a little bit of everything in focus, this is great for those that need to see the community they’re a part of. Learn more at: https://www.goodlifeproject.com/about/

4. Feeling Good: When you want a book to start you off on an adventure of podcasts centered on understanding mental health and depression in a positive and immersive way, look no further than the world of Feeling Good to offer it to you.  With many years of experience, Dr. Burns shares advice in his book,Feeling Good, and combines this with podcast material for free on his website.  Great for a dash of traditional meets modern.  Find more waiting for you at: https://feelinggood.com/about/

5. The Mental Illness Happy Hour: In hour-long sessions you’ll find helpful advice and uplifting messages focused on addiction, depression, and more.  You can listen to podcasts for free that are up to a year old and subscribe via Stitcher to listen to new ones for a monthly fee.  Take a look at it for yourself at: http://mentalpod.com

6. Food Psych: A first step to feeling good is fueling your body.  More and more people are stuck in chronic dieting, leading to weight cycling that is harmful to your physical and mental health.  Find relief from diet culture, fat shaming, and other disturbing societal norms.  Food psych takes firm hold on these concepts, using the latest research, helping each listener learn about having a healthy relationship with food that spills over into accepting and loving your body in a way that is healthy on all fronts. Have you been curious about the Health at Every Size movement or Intuitive Eating approach? Learn more here.  It’s waiting for you with a membership of $47 for access to two seasons of this innovative podcast and bonus content, or simply enjoy the free weekly interviews.  Find more at: https://christyharrison.com/foodpsych/

7. Body Kindness: What if loving yourself was as simple as learning to love yourself for all of your good and bad parts?  That’s exactly what Body Kindness offers.  From talking about food to relationships and everything in between, this podcast will help you on your way to a better understanding of yourself.  You’ll learn to love your body and practice respectful ways of caring and nourishing it.  Weekly podcasts are free to listening and you can also look for one-on-one consultation or invest in a $20 book on body kindness.  For more information, please look to: https://www.bodykindnessbook.com/podcast/

Before the internet-based world, mental health was something that you needed to struggle with on your own, but these seven option offer you seven ways to get in charge of yourself and your mental health in healthy and accessible ways.  Pick you favorite podcast and start transforming your life for the better today!

 

Here are some of our other blog articles you might like:

Anxiety and Stress: How Does Our Body React?

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Anxiety: Your Friend?

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