Anxiety, Stress, And Fear

Dealing with Anxiety, Stress, and Fear


anxiety "apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill"
stress "bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium"
fear "an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger"


What is it?

Anxiety, stress, and fear are each an element of the same body response, although the feeling in our bodies arises from many different sources. Let’s explore each of these elements and their contribution to bodily stress.

Anxiety is the expectation and anticipation of an event that you either dread or desire. Fear is the dread of that event and stress is the chronic application of anxiety or fear in daily life. Anxiety isn't always a bad thing. In a mild form, anxiety is the basis for excitement and is your body’s natural response to an approaching challenge.

When you tune into your anxiety, you feel the physical sensations in your body as it prepares to face an impending challenge. Anxiety prepares you for the challenge and fight or flight. For example, feeling anxious before a race assures that your body will be as ready as it can be when the starter gun goes off.  Heart rate rises, digestion stops, and adrenaline powers through your system, blanching your skin and bringing blood to vital organs and muscles, shutting down normal thought processes. Anxiety is a powerful force - useful but can be problematic also.


When it becomes a problem

Anxiety becomes a problem when it prematurely readies your body for a stressful event even when no stressful event is imminent. Anticipating a race ten minutes before its start might be helpful, but experiencing a state of rising anxiety several hours before a race will exhaust you before you take the first step.

Our bodies are not designed for a constant state of anticipation of a low-level fight or flight situation. That constant, anxious preparedness for a challenge that might never come keeps you in a state of chronic anxiety. If you live with chronic anxiety you usually know that something is wrong, but you’re not sure what. You may feel simultaneously alert and fatigued, have sleep issues, digestive issues, and experience poor concentration and decision-making.

Fear is anxiety out of control. Unless you are faced with an imminent danger you should not be experiencing fear. If someone approaches with an intent to harm you, then of course fear is not only warranted but helpful. Fear kick starts your body's flight or fight response. Too often we fear because we anticipate a challenge that never comes.

Fear creates the same physical responses as anxiety, but even more powerfully. We have not evolved to be anxious or fearful for long periods, but only when necessary. A lion approaching is a situation where fear is your friend. In this example of a real threat you run away, or you fight, then you are safe – the threat is neutralized. Our bodies normally process the physical costs of fight or flight once we are safe by trembling, feeling fatigued, or sleepy. You may cry. Depending on your attachment style you may seek or avoid companionship, and human connection.

Stress is a chronic feeling of anxiety and fear. Anxiety and fear tax the body in different ways, while our emotional systems try to adapt behaviors to avoid stress in the future. Unfortunately, avoidance isn't always possible, which leading to more anxiety and fear, turning into even greater stress. Short term stress can be mild and manageable, or it can develop into ever-increasing maladaptive behaviors, such as looking for relief in drugs, alcohol, or distractions such as sex and risky activity.


Why Am I In Chronic Fight Or Flight?

A large portion of the chronic anxiety we feel results from our modern hectic lifestyle. We hold a device in our hands that bombards us with images, information, and conflict all day long. Although intellectually we know that some dangers though real, are far enough removed from our lives and our community that they cannot affect us physically, our emotional body is designed to respond before that information can be processed by our logical mind.

Even if you understand that this particular danger isn't going to affect you, you respond physically as though it were an actual threat. This response to danger makes certain we are always ready to react, even if we don't immediately understand the nature of the perceived danger. We have evolved to be sensitive to danger to our local group, our herd, our intimate community. In the past, when danger threatened our tribe, we would immediately respond and be ready to fight or fly. The problem with modern life is that you have a newscaster in your living room, or a social media influencer in your hand emphasizing danger that is almost certainly not relevant to you. Your body hasn't evolved to tell the difference between news relevant 2000 miles away and an actual danger to you here and now.

Not only 24/7 news bombards us with news of danger. You can be taught anxiety as a common response from your family. Whether intentionally or not an anxious parent teaches their child that danger can strike at any time. This child will subconsciously assume that the parent recognizes real-life dangers and adopts that same approach to life, leading to a state of normal anxiety that is not linked to any actual danger. The term 'helicopter parenting' describes this style of anxious parenting. They try to prepare and protect their child to the point that the child does not develop their coping skills. The child adopts their parents’ ingrained fears that are not real. 

Chronic anxiety can also warn of an actual low-level danger which is normalized enough to be tolerated daily, Abusive relationships often generate this reaction. A person who grows up witnessing domestic violence often does not understand that it was unusual or wrong. Later in life when they experience domestic violence they may accept it as normal relationship behavior. They may believe it is normal to experience daily threats and moments of fear. Anxiety is most certainly warranted in an abusive relationship as a normal physical response. This lack of awareness of true norms, or awareness but lack of other viable options can lead to the person staying in a situation that chronically promotes anxiety.

Work environments that have abusive elements to the relationships can also promote chronic anxiety. Many people experience great stressors in the interpersonal dynamics of their workplace. Often resulting from having a controlling or negative boss or colleague. Feeling they have no options they feel forced to accept environments or behavior by a co-worker that causes stress or anxiety when maintained over a long time.


What Can I Do To Deal With Anxiety, Stress, And Fear?

There are many approaches and methods used to address anxiety. They all involve physical release – for example, exercise. We often advise our clients to participate in yoga, exercise classes, or any kind of dancing. Anything that gets you out of your head and into your body is a true adaptive response to stress. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy offers a method to process the thoughts that arise out of an anxious state. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be usefully combined with physical exercise. Other valuable coping techniques advise anti-anxiety medications and a wealth of resources recommending nutrition and calming through proper diet. Meditation apps like "Calm “or "Headspace" abound and are easy to use and can be useful in relieving stress and managing Anxiety and Fear.

Why professional therapy Is Important

Imagine for a moment, there is a row of houses, all built by the same company in the same year on the same land. Suppose that one of the houses springs a leak and floods the basement. A plumber locates the source of the leak in the upper bathroom and rips out the wall and repairs the leak. A year later another house finds its basement flooded. The owner obviously wouldn't immediately rip out the wall in the upper bathroom because he assumed that the leak is in the same place. That owner would call in a professional - the plumber in this case - who knows the layout of the houses and has the professional skills to find the true cause leading to the least amount of wall damage. It’s always a good idea to learn as much as possible about a subject, but it’s important to know when to call a professional.

Self-help in the mental health field is limited because it is exceedingly difficult to distance yourself from yourself. It’s difficult to accurately identify your own particular mental health challenge. This is the reason counselors don’t counsel themselves. They rely on other professional counselors to support them as they work through their mental health challenges. Although your symptoms may sound like many other people's symptoms, and your background may appear similar to that of others, the fact is that even small differences require different and specific approaches. For each person, the history of an issue leading up to the final presenting symptom is different and requires different approaches to heal. Ultimately, any long-term working solution must include a period of therapy, which may include medication and with counseling or counseling alone., This the only way that your specific background, current needs can be effectively investigated and techniques for relief suggested.

Why You Can't Just Think Yourself Out Of It

"Just don't think about it!" "Think about it logically and it will go away!" Well-meaning advice-givers often overlook the emotional component of your issue and offer simplistic advice. This type of advice just doesn't take into account the way the human brain processes information. To use logic for a moment, we can say that if everyone could just think away their issues then the world would have a population of only content happy people and we wouldn't have the problems we have now.

If someone says to you "don't think of an elephant!". Your brain needs to process the word elephant, recall what it means, and most likely recalling images of elephants. Perhaps using a few memories of childhood zoo visits or wildlife programs that interested you. Only then can your brain finally recognize that you weren't supposed to think of those things! Of course, by then it is too late. When someone says, "don't think of how scary it is!", your mind immediately evaluates just how scary it is and then tries not to think about it, but of course, by then the body is already reacting with fear. Your logical mind arrives late to dinner and emotion has already eaten all the dessert!

Emotion takes over before your conscious mind activates.  For example, someone knocks on the door. Before you consciously realize "oh there's someone at the door" your fight or flight system has already processed the sound to rule out any danger. This is why, when scared by a loud noise or startling event, you react with fright - even before you understand what is happening. You duck even before you understand consciously what is about to hit you. This basic human survival system means that the logical brain, while useful for abstract thinking or making tools, is not so useful in dealing with emotions coursing through the body. 

Immediate Solutions

In the short-term, you will need to change your habits, perhaps significantly. You will need to examine your daily activities and to decide what increases anxiety and what reduces it. It's important to identify what happens just before anxiety-increasing events before the emotional component begins to take action. Then you can choose to react habitually or look for different approaches to stress-inducing events.

For example, if watching the news cause you to feel stressed and anxious, look at why you wanted to watch the news. Were you simply bored? Were you already anxious about something else? Was it just habitual? Did you join your partner in watching the news out of habit.? Begin noticing your ups and downs and the situations before and after each up or down. One useful technique is to note and writing down those stress or peaceful inducing events. Be sure to note things that bring you calmness and relaxation.

Once you develop a clearer picture of your emotional and mental patterns try to make useful changes. Perhaps instead of a news app, play a fun game. If your partner turns on the news, maybe chose to go out for a walk instead. Add relaxation behaviors where you might usually do something stressful. Sometimes day to day stress-filled situations can't be avoided. Then you can use micro-solutions, such a minute of meditation, breathing exercises, body scans, and progressive muscle relation. All of these can help calm and return you to the present moment.

Long-term Solutions

For long-term term relief, you will want to work with a professional who can help you understand and identify the origins of your anxiety. Therapy is the solution but, at the end of the day, remember that therapy is work. Unless you are challenged in therapy you are likely not truly resolving your issues. You must trust and feel comfortable with your therapist to feel safe. Only then you feel free to be challenged and open to your own new healthier adaptations as insight grows. This is the path to true growth. During your relationship with your therapist, you will begin to experience small changes in yourself that will become great changes over time and relief your anxiety, stress, and fear.


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