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!
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:
There are a lot of terms floating around the online world out there and it can be difficult to determine which ones to trust as the real deal and which ones are simply trigger words or click bait. One of the up-and-coming ones is mindfulness. As more and more experts start to discuss it in relation to its positive effects with both depression and anxiety, it’s important to understand what’s really waiting behind this term.
What is mindfulness?
At its most basic level, mindfulness is exactly how it sounds: the idea of knowing your mind at the minute detail level within the present moment. Being mindful means that you are listening to your thought process, acknowledging and identifying your emotions and simply being aware of what’s going on inside of you. This is often combined with the idea of meditation or yoga or something that can help your focus on what’s going on within yourself.
The reality is that mindfulness can be present in many forms and on its own or in combination with meditation. Regardless of how it is present, it is a healing process that has many benefits to its name.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
It’s free:Maybe it’s not the first benefit you’d think of, but mindfulness is totally 100% free. You can do it as often as you need to and it won’t charge you per use or per dosage. For those that really enjoy it and find it helpful, this is a major perk. It is also free from addiction or dependency in an unhealthy way.
It’s easy to do wherever you are:Whether you are in the privacy of a bedroom or meditation space, a crowded shopping mall or anywhere in between, mindfulness is something you can practice just about anywhere and it is going to be able to offer you that comfort when you need it. It’s also discrete which is good when you need a little bit of help in a busy spot.
It has quantifiable results with both anxiety and depression:There are proven results – with more studies being done currently – on its positive effects with anxiety and depression, both. When used in combination with other therapies or even in place of medication, there are substantial increases in quality of life for those with anxiety and/or depression. This is particularly helpful in teens who are not looking to engage with medication right away or adults with addiction concerns.
It treats physical symptoms as well:There are also benefits on the physical side when it comes to practicing mindfulness such as with IBS and psoriasis. While a lot of dependable studies have still yet to come, it seems as though mindfulness can be helpful across many playing fields, offering an actual option for those who suffer from both mental and physical health concerns.
Can be a long-term additional therapeutic option:While mindfulness may not be considered a full treatment on its own for depression, anxiety, PTSD and more, it can be used in accordance with other therapies to offer prolonged relief and help in times of crisis from common mental health illnesses.
Mindfulness is popular online in social and professional circles for all of the right reasons. As it continues to enjoy an online presence, more and more quantifiable research is going into its healing effects in mental and physical health to see how it can be exercised as a professional treatment option. Time will tell just how useful it can be long-term, but it clearly has got a lot going for it already and makes it something that you’re going to want to know about.
I didn’t need to use drugs because my bloodstream was manufacturing my own crystal meth.
— WORKAHOLICS ANONYMOUS MEMBER
Workaholism is described by some as the “respectable addiction,” though its affects can be destructive and even deadly to those who are compulsively addicted to work.
How can you tell if you are a workaholic?
How do we distinguish workaholism from “hard work?”
In his book, “Chained to the Desk,” Bryan Robinson describes workaholism as “an obsessive-compulsive disorder that manifests itself through self-imposed demands, an inability to regulate work habits, and an over-indulgence in work to the exclusion of most other life activities.”
How is a person diagnosed as a workaholic? Actually, workaholism is NOT a recognized mental health diagnosis in diagnostic manuals, though it might be a symptom of something bigger at play, as Dr. Robinson suggests. The urge to overwork can feel compulsive and anxiety provoking. A person with workaholism might not be able to clock-out mentally, even when they’d like to. It is a brand of achievement-oriented perfectionism, mixed with some rigidity, anxiety, and preoccupied thoughts.
The following is a checklist from Workaholics Anonymous (WA), useful for assessing workaholism.
Do you get more excited about your work than about family or anything else?
Are there times when you can charge through your work and other times when you can’t?
Do you take work with you to bed? On weekends? On vacation?
Is work the activity you like to do best and talk about most?
Do you work more than 40 hours a week?
Do you turn your hobbies into money-making ventures?
Do you take complete responsibility for the outcome of your work efforts?
Have your family or friends given up expecting you on time?
Do you take on extra work because you are concerned that it won’t otherwise get done?
Do you underestimate how long a project will take and then rush to complete it?
Do you believe that it is okay to work long hours if you love what you are doing?
Do you get impatient with people who have other priorities besides work?
Are you afraid that if you don’t work hard you will lose your job or be a failure?
Is the future a constant worry for you even when things are going very well?
Do you do things energetically and competitively including play?
Do you get irritated when people ask you to stop doing your work in order to do something else?
Have your long hours hurt your family or other relationships?
Do you think about your work while driving, falling asleep or when others are talking?
Do you work or read during meals?
Do you believe that more money will solve the other problems in your life?
Did you answer “yes” to 3 or more questions? According to Workaholics Anonymous, a person can be considered workaholic if they answer affirmatively to three or more of the questions.
Is work addiction really that dangerous?
In Japan alone, thousands people die annually from karoshi (“death by overwork”). Over-work affects people holistically. Physically, they may experience ulcers, chest pain, heart attacks, asthmatic attacks, or urges to binge eat. Psychologically, workaholism has been connected to depression, anxiety, perfectionism, stress, anger, burnout, low self-worth and low self-esteem. Socially, workaholics may be isolated from friends, family, or co-workers. In addition, their behavior can potentially lead to marital discord, divorce, or job loss. Children of workaholics are negatively affected too; research indicates that adult children of workaholics are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and feelings of low self-worth.
What happens in the workaholic brain? Work addiction alters the physiological and chemical nature of the brain. Workaholics attain an adrenaline high from binge-working. After the high, the person is left with a “work hangover,” which may involve heightened anxiety, irritability, or suicidal ideation. Akin to substance use disorders, workaholics often experience cognitive distortions that complicate their adrenaline addiction.
How is workaholism different from hard work?
The big distinctions are balance and boundaries. In order to have a balanced life, a person must be engage in healthy relationships, maintain outside interests and hobbies, and demonstrate overall self-care (ex. Slowing, family time, adequate sleep, etc.). Boundaries allow a person to distinguish their work life from their home life and social life and so forth.
Thomas Merton, in his book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” described workaholism and its threat to inner peace:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
If you are feeling burned out from over-work and are ready to begin a journey toward recovery, a counselor at Star Meadow Counseling might be able to help.
Do your thoughts ever end up stuck in the past, replaying a conversation or event in your head?
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema from Yale University describes ruminating as “a mode of responding to distress that involves repetitively and passively focusing on symptoms of distress and on the possible causes and consequences of these symptoms.”
You’ll know you are ruminating when:
You replay the same old memory over and over, like watching a video on a loop
You examine the memory in detail, play-by-play
You think (and re-think) about what you could have said or done differently to cause a different result
You try to remember exactly how another person reacted in order to evaluate yourself
Most people do not enter into ruminating thoughts on purpose. Instead, ruminating tends to be an automatic response and force of habit. You might even ruminate without realizing it consciously until you start feeling slightly (or a lot) embarrassed, anxious, disappointed in yourself, or guilty. Because the thoughts operate on auto-pilot, they are often unproductive. The thoughts can leave you with hyper-judgmental inner thoughts that have gone nowhere to propel you forward.
Have you ever paused to wonder: WHY ARE THESE THOUGHTS HAPPENING TO ME? WHAT’S THE POINT?
In her book, “The Language of Emotions,” Karla McClaren suggests ruminating might not only be replaying the past, but is in fact is the brain looking for NEW information. This new information might be of help to you in future, similar circumstances.
What if ruminating thoughts bring with them a powerful GIFT? What if you could channel their efforts into something that DOES help and DOES move you forward?
Here are some tips for ruminating more effectively and purposefully:
Notice when you are ruminating and name it: “I’m ruminating.” This will help you shift into on-purpose self-reflection and away from a spiral into automatic negative thinking.
Reflect back looking for learning points. What would I have done or said differently if I had a do-over? What did I miss that I’d want to watch for in the future?
Avoid judging yourself. Labeling yourself harshly (Example: “failure”) serves no practical purpose and only causes you harm. In fact, rumination that is laden with negativity about yourself amplifies your experience of depression or anxiety.
Be kind to yourself and intentional about practicing self-compassion. That means assuming the best about why you did or said what you did in those moments. In that moment, you probably did the best with what you knew. If practicing self-compassion is difficult for you, a counselor may be able to help.
Some events we ruminate on were not in our control. Don’t take ownership of stuff that’s not yours, especially if it’s related to an experience of abuse.
Know when to stop. The moment you realize that reflecting back is not helpful (HINT: You’re finding no further learning points), call it quits. There are a number of different strategies you can take to help you let go of unhelpful intrusive thoughts. Try out a cognitive defusion technique, prayer, or confirm to yourself out-loud: “These are just thoughts. They’re not helping anymore. I’m letting them go.” Some intrusive thoughts are harder to shake than others, especially if they’ve been around for a long time or if there’s trauma involved. Be patient with yourself and don’t be afraid to ask a counselor for help.
If you’d like assistance shifting out of a destructive pattern of rumination, a therapist at Star Meadow Counseling might be able to help. We love to see clients shift ruminations into something more constructive, useful, healing, and less self-critical.
Years ago, I was the guitarist in a rock band. Well, okay, the term “rock band” might be a bit of an exaggeration. It was really a group of fresh-faced college students playing children’s music at local parks. The trouble was, our drummer had just learned some fancy new fills and was throwing off the beat–repeatedly, in every single song.
Ever the “nice” kid, I recall being wracked with anxiety as I prepared to confront the drummer. I waited passively first, hoping he would figure out on his own that he was the one messing things up. When that didn’t do the trick, I knew it was time to say something.
It was around that time that one of my mentors taught me how to use “I”-Statements, which forever changed the way I approach awkward conversations, and allowed me to find the words for opening up to the drummer.
“I”-Statements are an approach to confrontation that allows the person doing the confronting to take ownership for their own thoughts, feelings, and needs. Not surprisingly, “I”-statements typically start with the word “I.” Here are some example “I”-Statement sentence starters:
I feel… (and you have to use an actual emotion word here!)
What I’d like is…
In contrast, “You”-statements put the blame on the other person, setting into motion the type of defensiveness that often escalates a confrontation into a fight. A typical “You”-statement might sound something like– “Drummer dude, you’re screwing up our rhythm!” That approach would probably not have lead to anything constructive and may have damaged band cohesion.
Instead, an I-statement allows me to express how I’m being impacted and what I need. For example: “Drummer dude, I noticed myself struggling to keep a steady strumming rhythm during those transitions when you’re using the new drum fills. I’ve felt lost during those parts. What I’d like is to hold off on using the new fills until we can get in sync with our rhythm in practice.”
Sometimes, an “I”-statement doesn’t feel like quite enough, especially when the awkward conversation you are preparing is particularly hard for someone to hear.
Let’s be real! Being on the receiving end of feedback can be uncomfortable, exposing, and make us feel vulnerable! Most of us have a natural defensive mechanism that steps in when those feelings come up while someone is giving feedback. That defensiveness can come across as denying, blaming, excusing, or ignoring. When you’re anticipating defensiveness in your awkward conversation, the “Empathy Sandwich” technique might come in handy.
A palatable confrontation is like a bologna sandwich.
The top slice of bread is an empathy statement. You can demonstrate empathy (which helps soften your confrontation) by showing that you understand where the other person is coming from. You put yourself in their shoes. For example: “You’ve been so excited to try out the new drum fills you’re learning!”
The bologna is the meat of the confrontation– the main point you’re hoping they hear. “I noticed myself struggling to keep a steady strumming rhythm during those transitions when you’re using the new fills. I’ve felt lost during those parts. What I’d like is to hold off on using the new fills until we can get in sync with our rhythm in practice.”
The bottom slice of bread is another empathy statement. “I understand why you’ve been so motivated to try the new fills! You’ve got that battle of the drummers competition coming up and you’re worried you might not be ready!”
The empathy sandwich technique might not work so well if the “meat” of your sandwich has too many layers. Do your best to stick to the point. What do you most want them to hear? If you throw in the kitchen sink, they will likely miss the point.
The empathy sandwich technique works best when the empathy statements you choose assume the best in the other person, are non-judgmental, and reflect your sense of how the other person is feeling.
In her book, “Daring Greatly,” Brene Brown provides a checklist that a person can use to gauge whether or not they are ready to give feedback.
“I know I am ready to give feedback when–
I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you;
I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you)
I’m ready to listen, ask questions and accept that I may not fully understand the issue;
I want to acknowledge what you do well instead of picking apart your mistakes;
I recognize your strengths and how you can use them to address your challenges;
I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming you;
I’m willing to own my part;
I can genuinely thank you for your efforts rather than criticize you for your failings;
I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to your growth and opportunity; and
I can model the vulnerability and openness that I can expect from you. (p.204, Daring Greatly)”
A printed version of Brene Brown’s checklist can be found at her website.
If you’d like support gearing up for an awkward conversation, a counselor at Star Meadow Counseling is available to help!
Brown, B. (2017). Engaged Feedback Checklist. Retrieved May 28, 2018, from https://brenebrown.com/downloads/engaged-feedback-checklist/