Anxiety is that pit in your stomach, recurring and unwanted thoughts, or a haunting sense of some unknown but impending danger. Stress is worrying about some clearly identifiable situation right in front of you. Both kinds of worry ramp up our flight/flight/freeze responses that cause immediate changes in our bodies, our minds and our emotions. while we generally seek to avoid anxiety and stress, we have nearly identical responses from being excited.
What would it be like to not feel stressed? To banish anxiety? For those of us paralyzed by anxiety, it would feel like freedom. What about the other version of stress? If we lacked the ability to feel stress, would we jump off a high rock into a lake? Would the thrill of the line pulled off a reel by a Walleye be remembered? Would our hearts pound when we play our favorite video game or watch a suspenseful movie? Stress can be derived from positive or negative events. It is possible to learn the skills to turn stress into excitement, as well as turn uncertainty into striving for something desired. A pounding heart might signal fear or it might be a sign that we are wholly alive.
Imagine a scale with excitement on one end, anxiety on the other, and stress between.
All of us find ourselves trouncing over and back across this scale, often on several spots simultaneously. One place for work, one for kids and one for our most cherished goals. So just like Minnesota weather, if we wait a few minutes it will likely change. Stress is a normal part of life. Anxiety is not uncommon. Excitement is—hopefully—a regular visitor too. See here for ideas on how to transform anxiety and stress into excitement.
Stress vs. anxiety
April is National Stress Awareness Month in an effort to highlight the very real consequences of living with untreated stress or anxiety. Chronic stress is known to cause serious and chronic health conditions as noted in the chart below. Stress from early childhood, often referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES, often leads to a wide range of very adult mental health issues, physical illnesses and difficulty coping with life.
While many of us interchangeably use the words stress and anxiety, for mental health purposes it is helpful to distinguish between them. The graphic below illustrates this.
An accompanying article on the Psych Central website states:
“Stress is a physiological and behavioral response to an immediate threat or challenge. Anxiety is an emotional feeling and psychological state anticipating the possibility of harm.”
This is not to suggest that the stress of losing a job or going through a divorce might not feel devastating. Situational stressors can be as consequential as anxiety. The difference lies more in the ability to keep the worry confined to the specific event. For example, a job loss can lead to other losses due to money problems. You may need to move to find a new job or other directly related consequences. The good news is that when a new job is found the related situations are likely to also find resolution.
Anxiety is a fear-based worry, often not connected to identified causes. It leads us to anticipate a range of possible scenarios. You might gnaw away at the same recurring thought, or perhaps experience a kaleidoscope of vague and shifting feelings of dread. Anxiety persists.
There are several categories of anxiety disorders, but all share the common elements of fear and anxiety. The DSM-5 explains: “Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat.”
Types of anxiety
- Specific phobias, affecting 12% of people.
- Social anxiety disorder, affecting 12% of people.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder, affecting nearly 7% of people in the US.
Both anxiety and stress are treatable conditions. Whether we are dealing with identifiable stress or with more deep-seeded anxiety, seeking counseling can ease your burden. Therapy can help you manage stress by offering non-judgmental support, help you create new perspectives and view your issues from a different angle. Feeling understood helps. Feeling validated is healing. Therapy can help remind you of your strengths and your capabilities that might have felt just out of reach. Therapy can help you stop focusing on the “problem” and start focusing on enhancing wellness and working toward possibilities. Therapy helps you add new skills to your toolbox while enabling greater self-regulation and self-soothing.
Understanding and helping others understand anxiety
Trying to understand even our own anxiety might feel baffling. There can exist a rational awareness that our worries are excessive or that the scenarios we picture are highly unlikely. But that knowledge alone does not erase the fear. It might paradoxically have the opposite effect of leading us to question our own sense of reality.
One highly accessible resource for understanding anxiety is a website called mindmypeelings developed by a Canadian chap named Anthony. His blog posts are exceptionally relatable. In an essay called ”How to Explain Anxiety to Someone Who Doesn’t Have It” he does a credible job of describing the indescribable. The essay enumerates common misconceptions or myths about anxiety. He describes anxiety as “feeling like you are trapped in a loop,” about having no control, even about sometimes feeling paralyzed.
A graphic on the site illustrates the external versus the internal experience of anxiety:
It often makes our own perceptions seem more real when we hear them described by someone who has lived with them as well. Understanding alone cannot always fix what ails us. Turning to others, including mental health professionals, can make a big difference.
Therapies for addressing anxiety
At Alliance for Healing our diverse team of therapists are trained in several different therapeutic techniques to address anxiety disorders. We offer both in-person and online sessions.
One method, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), helps with challenging negative repetitive thoughts, then working to change one’s go-to (but often ineffective) automatic behavior. Here is how CBT can benefit anxiety.
Alliance for Healing therapists offer neurofeedback to treat anxiety. Neurofeedback promotes our brain’s capacity for self-regulation and improved function.
Two other forms of treatment for anxiety (and for trauma) offered by our therapists include Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and Brain Spotting. Both of these methods supplement talk therapy with experiential work that can be transformative.
Our therapists also teach a variety of self-soothing skills. They teach ways to practice mindfulness, to utilize breathing skills as well as other therapies.
How to reduce anxiety or stress
Many of us have experienced increased stress over the past few years. COVID, inflation, more natural disasters and generally a more divided society. Stress might feel more the norm than an exception. Some practical suggestions for understanding and alleviating stress can be found from the Stress Management Society in England. Their Stress Awareness Month Guide offers education and tools for reducing stress.
Yes, there is an app for that: Recommended apps for anxiety
Mobile apps can enhance relaxation skills. They can help you monitor anxiety levels and serve as a mindfulness bell for taking a break or practicing a self-regulation skill. See verywellmind.com for descriptions of several mobile apps that are well regarded for addressing anxiety. PsychCentral also has a good list of anxiety app recommendations.
The best app is one that you actually use. Whatever works for you will work for you.
Cultivating hope and trust
And banishing anxiety and fear
Stress and anxiety might feel like residents with unbreakable leases in our minds and bodies. Truthfully, they are a normal part of life. They could be transformed into excitement and they can be successfully treated. Please contact us if you are ready to cultivate more hope and serenity.