by Roberta Balagopal
Stress reactions are normal, and your body’s way of dealing with situations where you feel under threat. They are physical and emotional responses to a situation, whether acute or chronic, of heightened stress.
Stress becomes a particular point of concern if it is chronic – that is, it goes on for a long period of time at a heightened level. This can lead to emotional and physical problems, and exacerbate existing physical illness or bring on illnesses which you may be predisposed to.
The challenge is to find the causes of the stress, as these may not be immediately clear. There are two kinds of stress reactions you can look out for:
1. Primary – You feel this in some part of your body, as some sort of sensation (eg, tense shoulders, upset stomach, etc.)
2. Secondary – You still feel it, but now it has become visible or noticeable by yourself or other people, ie it is both felt and seen (eg, you snap at people, you become silent and withdrawn, etc.)
Once you notice these reactions:
Stop – Look around – Assess.
This gives you a break to identify what is triggering the stress, and catch these reactions before they become chronic.
Anxiety is a form of stress. We often think of it in terms of anxiety attacks, which are acute episodes of panic which we often deal with by worrying – worrying about our health, whether the attack will happen again, when it will happen, etc. Worrying becomes an ongoing habit, and, like stress, anxiety is a problem if it is chronic.
Chronic anxiety is a feedback loop of thought (eg worrying) and feeling (physical sensation) reinforcing the other. It also tends to be many things at once, many thoughts and many feelings, which overwhelm us.
To deal with this, first unpack the thoughts and feelings, and name them as precisely as possible. Once named, identify the thought that seems to feature most prominently.
I get anxious in an unfamiliar situation, meeting new people in a new environment and having to speak to them. I worry I may have a panic attack while trying to work in this situation, but I have no choice.
Let’s start with physical feelings, for example: I have a rapid heartbeat, am feeling giddy, maybe a little nauseous.
Now thoughts: I’m scared, because I am not sure what to do, I am no good at these situations and I am trapped.
Let’s pick a physical feeling: I feel giddy. I will take a deep breath for 4 seconds, hold it for 4 seconds, let it out for 4 seconds. Repeat this til the giddiness calms.
Now a thought: I am scared and trapped. Actually, here is a chance for me to try out my skills in a new context and meet new people. It’s not so much scary as exciting. I can always excuse myself and step out for a bit if I am overwhelmed.
Do I need help?
Breaking the feedback loop takes both awareness and a lot of practice. A counsellor can help with unpacking the triggers of stress reactions and anxiety attacks, and in offering strategies to redirect thoughts to be more positive and calming. This way, you can start to form new habits that help you feel better.
For more information, or to speak to a counsellor directly, send us a message.