Anxiety and stress share many of the same symptoms so it can be difficult to know which one you are suffering from – perhaps both.
Stress is your bodies’ reaction to a threat and is meant to help us survive. When presented with a threat, our brain cues our body to use fight, flight, or freeze in response to the threat. This is an intense reaction and the body remembers it forever. These reactions are meant to help us deal with imminent and serious danger.
Stress is the repeated activation of the fear response over time. A fight, flight or freeze response isn’t helpful with our usual daily stressors such as work, relationships, commuting, etc.
This type of Chronic Stress can lead to the development of anxiety disorders and panic attacks. Anxiety is an ongoing mental health challenge that doesn’t go away when the threat goes away. Anxiety interferes with our functioning at work, at home, and in social situations. Anxiety is a threat to our physical health in the short term – headaches, sleeplessness, muscle tension, gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain, etc. In the long term, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
The intensity of a Panic Attack is impossible to describe. If you have never experienced one, a panic attack sufferer cannot do it justice. When someone has their first – or second, or third panic attack – they seldom understand that it is a physiological response to a stressor. The victim usually fears that her chest pain is a heart attack, her shortness of breath is a soon to be fatal lung condition, and her lightheadedness will result in fainting on the spot. The connection to the stressors is harder to identify if the stressor occurred much earlier and seemingly has nothing to do with the current symptoms. During a panic attack, it is very difficult to think and act rationally. Here are some very simplified steps in order of importance:
- Reassure yourself that this is a panic attack and that it will not kill you.
- Remind yourself that it will only last a few minutes.
- Remind yourself that you won’t go crazy or lose control even though it feels like you will.
- Move around – get up and walk – go outside if possible. If no one is watching, you can wave your arms around – or do it even if they are watching. Moving your body will burn up the adrenalin that is fueling the panic.
- Breathe and count your breaths.
Long-term strategies for combating stress, minimizing anxiety, and avoiding panic attacks are many:
- Exercise, especially aerobic exercise
- Practices such as yoga and tai chi combat stress in many ways – improving sleep, boosting immunity, dropping blood pressure, lowering blood sugar, improving concentration, easing pain, and increasing self-esteem.
- Cognitive restructuring – cognitive behavioral therapy identifies thoughts which lead to anxiety and helps to restructure them into more positive beliefs. You can change your thinking, thus change your feelings, then change your behavior.
If you find that anxiety and stress are interfering with activities of daily living, ask for help. Start with family and friends – some of them may be very helpful! If you don’t feel comfortable with sharing with those closest to you, do not hesitate to seek professional help. Anxiety and stress are the Number 1 reason people seek help in our country.