Understanding anxiety and stress by gaining self-awareness is a critical component of overcoming that anxiety and thriving alongside it.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, roughly 18% of adult Americans struggle with anxiety.
In this episode, my guest, Nationally certified counselor and clinical director of Elevate Counseling, Jaime Dana, shares the difference between stress and anxiety, and shares tips to increase your success.
Jaime was on the podcast way back in November of 2018, so if you missed that one, be sure to go back and listen.
The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety
We all have stress in our lives and it isn’t all bad. All anxiety isn’t negative. But there are levels of both that can be unhealthy, so I wanted to begin by understanding the difference between the two.
Stress tends to be more situationally focused and time-sensitive.
If you want to know if you are dealing with stress, ask yourself, “If the situation I’m in changes, will the feelings I’m experiencing shift?”
Anxiety tends to be more of an ongoing feeling or a feeling you get following a specific emotional event.
When you’re struggling with anxiety, no matter what situation you’re in, you feel the same things. So, you may get over one situation but as soon as something else happens, you’re right back in those negative feelings again.
In anxiety, the bad feelings cling to you like velcro; they don’t let go even when things get better.
Anxiety also carries with it more pronounced feelings; things like difficulty sleeping, excessive worry, racing thoughts, physical symptoms (rapid heart rate, tight breathing, tight muscles), panic attacks, OCD, or heightened self-awareness in social settings.
If you struggle with any of these symptoms, and they begin to inhibit daily functioning over a two-week period, that’s considered significant anxiety.
How Do You Know When It’s Time to Get Help
If you see yourself in the descriptions above, you may think, “Well, I’ve been dealing with these things for years, or since I was a child.” Maybe you’ve become accustomed to living with a certain level of anxiety and you’ve developed coping mechanisms to get through.
But sometimes, your coping skills stop working. Or maybe you’re like me; I saw a therapist as a young child for some sleep issues and as an adult, I saw my own daughter struggling with some of those same issues.
How do you know when it’s time to seek out help?
Jaime says that anytime you feel like the levels of anxiety are impacting your daily life, over, or for longer than, a two-week period, it’s time to seek out a counselor or therapist.
Sometimes, we have symptoms but we haven’t associated them with anxiety.
It’s super important to be in-tune with your body so that if you do start to notice things like Jaime mentioned above, you can pay attention to how they are affecting you and whether or not they go away in a short period of time.
Understanding the Fight or Flight Response
If you know me, you know I am always talking about how the brain protects us and how much our bodies respond to situations we find ourselves in. But our body’s responses aren’t always helpful.
When we face a situation where we feel scared or anxious or emotional, we send our limbic system into overdrive. The limbic system is responsible for keeping us safe from danger. It is purely reactionary; you can’t plan how you will react when danger comes.
You either flee, fight, or freeze.
Imagine touching a hot stove. You don’t have to wait for your brain to tell your hand to move; it moves because of the danger. It is automatic.
How Fear Conditioning Affects Our Response to Stress
But the brain stores the memory of that experience in a different way than it stores other memories.
And it creates in us something called “fear conditioning.” This simply means that your brain tries to make damn sure you don’t touch any more hot stoves for the rest of your life.
In the future, just thinking about a traumatic experience can bring up those same feelings of fear and anxiety that you had when you were going through the event.
Sometimes, the brain brings up those feelings for things that aren’t life-threatening.
Think about how you feel if somebody cuts you off in traffic. Or, how does the thought of public speaking make you feel?
Our experiences can cause the brain circuits that store these memories to change and to send us into that fight or flight response, even if the situation doesn’t warrant it. Before we even have a chance to ask ourselves if we’re in any real danger in our present situation.
Why It’s Crucial to Know Your Triggers
Because we all had different experiences growing up and in life, we will each have unique things that bring up that fight or flight feeling in us. So, it’s important to identify the things that cause those feelings of anxiety so we can deal with them.
If we don’t identify them, they will always lie buried, waiting to trip us up when we least expect them to. It would be like walking across a minefield, not knowing whether or not we are going to make it out alive.
Once you can identify the events that cause you anxiety, you can begin to delve into the thoughts that surround that event.
What are you telling yourself about the situation? What’s your inner dialogue?
Steps You Can Take to Lessen Your Anxiety
I am a firm believer in the self-coaching model. I think you should do everything you can to help yourself and when you run out of skills, or it’s not working anymore, it’s time to seek professional help.
So, I asked Jaime to share some simple action steps we can take to coach ourselves when anxiety is rearing its ugly head and we feel out of control.
- Practice diaphragmic breathing. Before we can have rational thoughts, we have to lower the heightened emotional state we’re in. A great way to do this is by focusing on your breathing. Diaphragmic, or belly, breathing can slow the heart rate and decrease blood pressure. Deep breathing brings you back into the present moment as you focus on each breath.
- Focus on something specific while breathing. As you do the belly breathing, count your inhales and exhales by 2’s, or focus on one word as you breathe in and out. Repeat it over and over until the breath is complete. This takes your focus off the stressor and places it on the here and now.
Identifying and Challenging Your Thoughts
It is estimated that we have upwards of 50K thoughts per day. That’s fifty thousand, ladies.
If you struggle with anxiety or depression, the majority of your thoughts likely tend to be weighted toward negative self-judgment, worries about the future, or regrets about the past.
Some of these thoughts may actually be rational and some others will be irrational.
If you experience the type of anxiety that is disrupting your days for weeks on end, you are probably dealing with cognitive distortion. This simply means that you have unreasonable thoughts that cause you to misperceive reality.
This can look like only paying attention to the negative in any situation and filtering out any positive thoughts. It’s that all or nothing thinking that gets us into trouble.
It’s too easy to fall into the all or nothing thinking. If a situation arises that has a negative component to it, it’s easy to throw your hands up and say, “What the hell? I might as well just ___.”
Fill in the blank with whatever the situation calls for.
But think about it this way: if you saw that your car had a flat tire, would you immediately slash the other 3 tires? Of course not! You wouldn’t let one negative piece of the situation cause you to create a bigger problem.
How Journaling Can Help You Manage Your Thoughts
I am a huge fan of journaling and that’s no surprise to anyone who has listened to this podcast or worked with me privately. Journaling has changed my life and I believe it can change anyone’s life who is honest with themselves.
When you write your thoughts down in a journal, you tend to ditch the filters you use in daily life that you use to protect yourself from the judgment of others.
When I first started journaling, I caught myself writing like I thought somebody else was going to read it. So I called myself on my own BS, dropped the filter, and wrote what I was actually thinking and feeling, without worrying about how it made me sound.
Sometimes, just getting your thoughts down on paper can help you stop the spinning and see what reality looks like. You see that your situation isn’t what it appeared to be when your brain was using that old fear conditioning.
How to Create Daily Practices to Lessen Anxiety
Most of the solutions to ongoing anxiety fall into the category of daily practices, things you begin to do every day so that when you find yourself in a stressful situation, you’ve trained your brain on how to respond.
The first practice is throwing all the “shoulds” out the window. You know what I’m talking about.
You walk into your closet in the morning and your jeans are just a little bit tight. So, you freak out on yourself and your self-talk goes something like, “I can’t believe I let myself get here. I should know better. I should be taking better care of myself. I shouldn’t have eaten that cupcake last night.”
And on and on and on. You beat yourself up.
So, the first thing to do is let go of that distorted thinking. Maybe there are legitimate reasons for your pants to be tight. Maybe it’s not just that you were undisciplined.
The point is that there is more to a situation than first meets the eye. One moment in front of the mirror in the morning is not the whole story.
Using Affirmations to Change Your Response
We hear so much about using affirmations to make ourselves feel better and to lessen our negative self-talk. But Jaime says that we might be thinking about affirmations in the wrong way to actually help our anxiety.
If you think that affirmations mean you stand in front of a mirror while chanting, “I love myself, I am beautiful, I am worthy of love,” then you might feel they are a waste of time. And rightly so.
Try this instead. Forget the mirror if you like, and instead, just say gently to yourself, “I am doing the best I can today. I am a work in progress. I am taking one step at a time.”
Specific Methods of Journaling to Try
If you want to try journaling to combat your racing thoughts, Jaime offered a couple of specific methods that can make a huge difference in those runaway thoughts.
- Nighttime journaling: simply keep a journal on your nightstand, and if your thoughts won’t shut down when you go to bed, take a minute to write them down. Sometimes, just getting them out of your head and onto paper is all it takes to shut them off so you can sleep.
- Action-focused journaling: with this method, you write your current stressors down, and then re-read them and rethink them from a different perspective. The idea here is to determine which pieces of the situations are in your control and which parts are out of your control. Then, ask yourself, if your best friend was facing the same situation, what advice would you give her?
- Gratitude journaling: I’m sure you’ve heard of this practice of writing 3 things every day that you’re grateful for. But what Jaime shared is that it’s proven to be more effective if you write the 3 things at night and then think about them during the day. It’s also helpful to focus on the subtle things, like the little details of life that bring us joy. Maybe your socks don’t have seams across the toe. That’s something to be thankful for!
This was a lot of information to take in and Jaime shared a ton of ideas to help us deal with stress and anxiety. I want to close by saying that when we provide the brain with redirects or alternatives, through journaling or through breathing, we are showing the brain that these new opportunities are safe.
That has a compound effect over time that helps us not feel so overwhelmed by anxiety. With practice and time, we can make those shifts.
There may be many layers of this onion that you have to peel back before you get to all the root causes. If you don’t know where to start, I am here to help.
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