Right now I would venture to say that every person on this planet has felt some level of anxiety in the recent weeks. If you haven’t…I want to know your secrets!
Since I am in the counseling field, I often use the term “anxiety” to describe a client’s experience of stress. That is usually because by the time I get to see someone for counseling their stress has crossed a line and has become anxiety. We all have stress and some of us have highly stressful situations we deal with daily, while some of us have situational stressors that resolve themselves over time. With our current pandemic situation, the unknown time frame has been causing people that can generally manage stress to begin to experience symptoms of anxiety.
I have had several clients recently ask when they will know if they need medication. If they can begin to focus on learning mindfulness meditation techniques or if we can specifically address issues they have overlooked in the past.
In other words…they want relief from their anxiety.
Their stress has crossed a line and it is now pervasive enough to be called “anxiety”.
Whatever our version of “normal” is, or was, its been rocked to its core over the past month. So I thought it might be nice to just have some information about stress and anxiety. How to know what is “normal” and what to do if its passed the point of what your “normal” tolerance point is.
What is the difference between stress and anxiety?
Stress is a reaction to conditions in our environment, in our lives. It is usually short lived. For example, the stress of getting a promotion and buying a “better” new home is a combination of positive feelings of high excitement and hope for a more enjoyable home experiences, and it comes with the hassles of contracts and inspections, etc.
Anxiety is a reaction to either intense stressors in our lives, or prolonged stressors. Anxiety can also be caused by a chemical imbalance in the body and have less to do with stressors and more with physiology.
Stress can show up just like anxiety, with rapid heartbeat, racing thoughts, breath constriction, insomnia, stomach aches, headaches, etc. But these sensations typically rise into our experience and then pass away as the stressor or the conditions pass. Anxiety is more long standing and the symptoms are more intense and have more of an effect.
How can you tell if your anxiety is passed the point of being normal?
Unfortunately, these days, with social media and the political climate as it is, our “normal” stress experiences aren’t arising and eventually passing. It can be hard to determine what is “normal” anymore.
Becoming more aware of your personal experience of stress is important. You can try charting moods on an app for a few weeks to get a snapshot of your “normal” anxious symptoms. Something like Sanvello is great for mood check-ins throughout the day.
Some of us like to go old school and simply writing down your moods. Make a continuum from 1-10 and describing what a 1 – so little anxious symptoms that you wouldn’t even describe yourself as an anxious person, to 5 – what is tolerable for you to manage, to 10 – what you imagine a Panic Attack would be like.
Getting an idea of what your “normal” is the starting point. Then you can see how long you are above your individual levels.
Sustained anxious symptoms will create depressive symptoms as well, so be aware that the body and mind will try to find an escape from intense anxiety, and it could turn towards depressive symptoms which are much different in nature.
Here is a list of signs or symptoms of depression:
(as you read this you may think, “Crap! I have a ton of these. Or, “Yep, that’s what being a human entails!” Just know that we are looking for more concentrated experiences of eating or sleeping for example. Above what you generally experience.)
Signs or symptoms of depression:
- Change in appetite – some may eat more (esp salty or sugary foods) and some may lose their appetite.
- Change in sleep habits – some may wake often throughout the night or wake extra early and some may continually feel lethargic and sleep hours longer than normal.
- Change in emotional temperament – some may be very irritable and express anger and some may feel their emotional life has become blunted and dull.
- Increased episodes of crying
- Inability to focus. Some may find themselves staring off into space at times.
- Resistance to life. Some may find they can drag themselves through the day, but they are internally fighting having to participate in life. Plans are easily canceled, friends are avoided and the external world becomes small and closed off.
- Suicidal thinking. Some may have fleeting thoughts of driving their car off a bridge, but have no intention of doing it. Some may begin to devise plans to take these thoughts to the next level.
- Escaping behaviors. Some may turn toward alcohol or drugs to get away from their current mood. Some may turn towards video games, porn, etc. to move into fantasy as escape.
What should you do if you think your anxiety is higher than normal/healthy?
There are numerous resources to help if you feel your anxiety has reached a level of intolerance.
If you are more into physical movement, try yoga or running or weight lifting. Something that matches your level of energetic intensity to help you move through the stress cycle. If you find that higher levels of working out increase the anxiety, try walking instead of running, restorative yoga instead of flow, or a slower gym workout routine.
Yoga breathing techniques are great for helping ease the physical body of anxious feelings. They speak directly to the nervous system and assists the body in calming first and the mind has a tendency to follow.
If you are into natural remedies, many people use CBD oil or Bach Flower Remedies or specific herbs for calming the mind and energetic body. Acupuncture, cranial sacral or even chiropractic work can help realign energy in the body and soothe our nervous system. And of course, massage.
(Recognize I am NOT prescribing these options. I am not a doctor and don’t play one on TV. These are simply options to explore and research on your own. I would strongly suggest contacting your general practitioner when you find something that resonates. Many herbs are safe, but without a doctor’s input…you may be unknowingly mixing substances that don’t agree.)
Branching into anxiety treatment options, there are so many great modalities out there.
Specific counseling techniques I find helpful:
Talk therapy is always a great choice. (Yes, I am biased!) Having someone that is dedicated to being present with you and listening deeply, who is empathetic and can share resources to use outside of the session. Sometimes having someone listen and witness our struggles is half the cure. Not being so alone can offer us a sense of belonging and hope.
Internal Family Systems has been the most effective model I have used personally as well as in my Atlanta counseling practice.
Mindfulness meditation and Mindfulness Self-Compassion classes are integral in helping us relax as a whole and calm the inner critic. There are a ton of great apps out there to help with at home guided practices.
What about medication?
If the anxiety is originating from a chemical imbalance, medication is extremely helpful, just as high blood pressure or cholesterol medication address specific medical issues. Anxiety medications are attractive because they are often fast acting, at least prescription Benzodiazepines, but be cautious when inquiring about these with your doctor or psychiatrist as they are addictive and need to be carefully monitored.
As a therapist, I mostly see clients that want to try alternative options before trying medication for anxiety symptoms. If we find we are at a plateau with therapy due to intense fear/anxiety, then we discuss medication as temporary assistant. I describe medication as “floaties” to help us not have to tread water while we are trying to do deep interpersonal work.
No matter what your level of stress has become, don’t wait to get help. No one needs to try and tread water alone!