Stress is a common and normal feeling. It occurs during situations where we feel under pressure. While stress can help us perform better, it can be problematic if we do not know how to appropriately manage it.
People often ask, what is the difference between stress and anxiety? While stress is a feeling of tension, anxiety is an individual’s specific reaction to stress. Anxiety is often characterized as persistent apprehension or dread. Unlike stress, anxiety will continue to persist even once a threat or concern has passed.
Still, everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. Having concerns about getting work done, paying bills, or even having enough free time can invade our thoughts. However, anxiety can also be brought on by substance use or medical issues. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains that over 31% of adults will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. By exploring the anatomy of anxiety, our own beliefs, and common triggers, we can learn how to cope with anxiety when it occurs in our life.
The Anatomy of Anxiety
Believe it or not, anxiety is a function of survival. Often, when we feel as if danger is present, we will experience physiological symptoms of anxiety. Our brains crave structure, direction, and safety. However, life is unpredictable.
When our brain feels that there is a threat (whether it is real or imagined), our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This part of our autonomic nervous system functions without conscious control. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we may experience some, or all, of the following symptoms:
- Muscle tension or tightness
- Rapid or shallow breathing
- Heart palpitations
- Racing thoughts
- Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
- Increased metabolism
- Trouble focusing or concentrating
- Increased blood pressure
- Pupil dilation
- Suppression of the immune system
Have you ever felt like you need a drink of water or need to use the bathroom before a big event? That’s your sympathetic nervous system at work. Our behaviors become focused on what is happening in our immediate environment. As a result, our behaviors can be impulsive or irrational.
Common Responses to Stress
Many people have heard of the “fight or flight” reaction to a stressful situation. However, there are, in fact, several additional possible reactions to anxiety-provoking situations:
- A fight response happens when we feel threatened. A person’s behavior can become reactive, hostile, and aggressive. The person may become angry, and their thinking is often defensive.
- A flight response occurs when the body readies itself to escape a situation.
- A freeze response occurs when our body stops moving. Hearing and vision are heightened to assess the potential level of danger.
- A fright response occurs when thinking and concentration become limited. With this reaction, the emotion of fear is at its peak. A person’s body may also become immobile during this response, and it is possible for the person to experience amnesia for parts of the stressful event.
- A flag behavior presents as a shutdown in biological systems. Emotions become dull or numb.
- A fawn response includes people-pleasing and/or engaging in appeasing behaviors to decrease conflict.
- A faint occurs in extreme cases. During this reaction, the person’s body shuts down to the degree that it can not send or receive any messages to take action.
How Our Beliefs Affect Our Anxiety
Our ever-watchful brain is constantly on alert for things that might compromise our safety. Sometimes, our brains tell us things are dangerous even when they are not. As a result, many of our own beliefs and experiences can contribute to our anxiety. For example, focusing on worst-case scenarios, self-criticism, and self-doubt can all increase our own anxiety. Often, these anxiety-related issues develop from factors including:
- Excessive nervousness or shyness during childhood
- Low sense of self-worth
- Lack of social support
- Domestic violence (including physical, emotional, and sexual assault)
- Other traumas
It is possible that our families can play a part in facilitating our anxiety. Children with anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely to have a parent with an anxiety disorder.
Understanding Our Triggers
Triggers are signals that act as signs of possible danger. Our brains hold on to sights, sounds, smells, feelings, activities, and body sensations from our past experiences that we once perceived as upsetting or traumatic. Because the brain remembers these things, revisiting these sensations, even in a seemingly safe environment, can trigger an unconscious reaction.
Triggers are all about how one’s perceptions are experienced as current reality. Meanwhile, triggers are subjective. Examples of anxiety-inducing triggers can include:
- Being yelled at
- Being belittled or picked on
- Feeling neglected
- Stress build-up
- A loved one struggling with a mental illness
- Substance use
- Inadequate sleep
How to Reduce Symptoms of Anxiety
Unsurprisingly, anxiety can interfere with your ability to function normally in daily life. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce your anxiety symptoms. Deep breathing, engaging in self-expression (such as through art or dancing), and positive self-talk are great ways to take control of your thoughts and feelings.
Movement of any sort, not just exercise, is also shown to decrease feelings of anxiety and, in turn, increase feelings of well-being. Meditation or prayer is also helpful in developing better focus and calming the mind. Practicing conscious relaxation of your muscles and reminding yourself that the anxiety will end helps these feelings pass more quickly.
Although it is a normal emotion, anxiety can interfere with your ability to function in your daily life. It can be challenging to determine if you are struggling with an anxiety disorder. Fortunately, there are treatment facilities available to help you to better understand and overcome your anxiety. At SoCal Mental Health, we believe that understanding your triggers is an important part of navigating and coping with your anxiety. Our treatment is focused on identifying the root causes of your anxiety and providing you with tools to regain control of your life. Using a variety of interventions including cognitive-behavioral therapy, nutrition counseling, medication management, and group and family therapy, we help you achieve mental clarity and peace. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety or an anxiety-related disorder, call us today to learn more about how we can help. Call (949) 502-2041.