What is stress?
Stress is not a medical diagnosis, but severe stress that continues for a long time may lead to a diagnosis of depression, anxiety or another emotional health state. Ultimately things that cause us to be stressed are:
- Situations associated with change.
- Situations associated with a lack of control over what is happening.
- Any situation involving our own lack of self esteem (feeling our true self is not good enough).
It’s not all negative though, there are some short term positive effects of stress. It gives us:
- A quick burst of energy.
- Decreased sensitivity to pain.
- Increase in immunity.
- Heightened memory.
We need a certain amount of stress in our lives to enable us to deal effectively with life’s problems, however, sometimes we become overwhelmed by it.
Normally, we might feel stressed by a certain situation but once we’ve resolved things, our resting stress level returns to normal, but when we live for a long time with stress, our threshold alters and this is when it can tip into anxiety.
In a minority of cases a certain amount of anxious feelings can be caused by a poor diet, too much caffeine, drug use, exhaustion and possibly the side effects of some medication. In the majority of cases though, underlying all anxiety is the feeling of fear, and yet there’s usually nothing specific there to make us afraid e.g. a spider, or a snake.
But even though there are a few positive effects of stress, why do we actually need it?
Well, stress, which produces the feeling of fear we talked about, is actually there to keep us safe. And most of us are familiar with the flight or flight response, or as it’s sometimes called, the fight, flight, freeze response, but how is it that some of us can develop anxiety much more easily than others? Well, if something distressing happened to us in the past, and we had no help to be able to deal with our feelings at the time, we might become anxious about facing similar situations again in case they stir up the same feelings of distress. Feeling anxious could also be something we learn from our family. They may have tended to see the world as hostile and dangerous and so we learn to respond in the same way.
So when we experience anxiety, the most important route to go down first is to identify what fears there may be there, and these may go back a very long way, into our childhood.
There are many ideas out there about how we can cope with our fears; looking at the worst that can happen, exposing ourself to our fear (flooding), using distraction techniques e.g. going for a walk, meditating, focusing on our breath etc.
However, these are only coping mechanisms – if we are not too anxious, they may reduce our anxiety levels for a time, but if the underlying cause of the anxiety isn’t discovered and the feelings expressed, life will not move on.
Remember – we don’t think anxious, we feel anxious! We need to track back to what triggered that fear to start with.
So firstly, how can we identify the root cause of the fear?
Well, it may be a good time to have some sessions of counselling, expressing feelings and being able to talk to an objective person are the most important things. Friends and relatives generally aren’t good at this because they just want us to be ok, and may have played an important part in causing the fear in the first place. A counsellor will help you to explore what fear actually means for you; times you felt afraid, times you felt safe, and they will support you in expressing those feelings of fear.
In emotional circles, there are two opinions of how we notice our feelings in the first place. One states that we become aware of a feeling by our mind informing us, the other holds the view that the first thing to happen is a feeling in our body; our breathing becomes more rapid, our muscles tense, our mouth becomes dry.
I’ll let you make your own mind up but I just want to leave you with the following quote by author Paulo Coelho from his book ‘The Alchemist’:
“Don't give in to your fears. If you do, you won't be able to talk to your heart.”
Related articles from our experts
- Recovering from traumatic experiences – anxiety, stress and PTSD
Greg Savva, Masters Degree, UKCP, Counselling in Twickenham & Whitton6th October, 2016
- 5 clear signs you're stressed – and what you could do about it?
Jayne Briggs MBACP Accredited, BSc (Hons) Therapeutic Couns. Cert. Couple Couns.6th October, 2016
- Staying present when strong emotions trouble you
Fe Robinson UKCP, MBACP, Dip Clinical Supervision8th September, 2016
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