Mar 10, 2009
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety, fear and stress are normal human feelings. However, it is important to understand the difference. Fear is a rational emotional response to a real threat. However, anxiety is an irrational emotional response to an imagined threat. For example, imagine you are walking down a dark alley in an unfamiliar city, and a stranger approaches you with a drawn gun. You experience fear, a normal reaction given this situation. If you walk down a familiar street in broad daylight and you begin to imagine some disaster is about to descend upon you without warning, you experience anxiety.
When discussing the various types of anxiety, it is very appropriate to speak of "worrying about worry." Individuals tend to chew on their anxieties and some often worry more about experiencing it than about the actual situation which causes it. There is a circular quality to this style of thinking, and the circle often develops maladaptive coping methods.
Research suggests that anxiety symptoms can become worse when a person is under stress. Symptoms include:
*Trembling and muscle tension
*Feeling tense and unable to relax
*Having trouble staying focused
*Feeling irritable or grouchy
*Trouble falling or staying asleep
*Feeling nauseous or otherwise physically ill when worrying
Anxiety is best described as a more psychological stress response often caused by prolonged thought processes which perpetuate it. If ignored, anxiety may eventually cause irrational fears, specific phobias (like social anxiety) and panic attacks.
A panic attack is a sudden and intense response to a normal thought or sensation. It is often accompanied by a feeling of impending doom and multiple physical sensations such as rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath (smothering or choking situations), sweating, nausea or abdominal discomfort, dizziness, derealization, depersonalization and a feeling of losing control. A breathing difficulty can refer to labored breathing or hyperventilation. The diaphragm, involved in the action of the lungs, is also a muscle and it can become overly tight. When there is perpetual, low-grade anxiety, a person often works too hard when breathing. On the other hand, if there is hyperanxiety or a panic attack, there is great excitement, and the individual may hyperventilate.
Anxiety and panic attacks can affect many aspects of a person’s life. If someone is always anxious and worried, it is doubtful that he or she can fully enjoy life. Anxiety might affect a person’s ability to make friends, perform well at work, and try new things. Sometimes people who suffer from anxiety revert to alcohol or drug abuse. Using drugs or alcohol to cope with anxiety can be dangerous and could make anxiety worse; this type of maladaptive coping technique can also cause other health problems, like substance abuse and dependence.
Physically, constant anxiety can cause problems with eating and sleeping habits, and prolonged anxiety may lead to more serious physical problems if it continues for years at a time.
It is important to remember that anxiety, panic attacks and related emotional stress responses are likely to be caused by multiple factors, including behavioral, environmental, as well as chemical.
Stress is anything that stimulates you and increases your level of alertness. Too much stress can seriously interfere with your ability to perform effectively. Most people realize that aspects of their work and lifestyle can cause stress. While this is true, it is also important to note that it can be caused by your environment and by the food and drink you consume. There are several major sources of stress:
Survival Stress: this may occur in cases where your survival or health is threatened, where you are put under pressure, or where you experience some unpleasant or challenging event. Here adrenaline is released in your body and you experience all the symptoms of your body preparing for 'fight or flight'.
Internally generated stress: this can come from anxious worrying about events beyond your control, from a tense, hurried approach to life, or from relationship problems caused by your own behavior. It can also come from an 'addiction' to and enjoyment of stress.
Environmental and Job stress: Here your living or working environment causes the stress. It may come from noise, crowding, pollution, untidiness, dirt or other distractions. Alternatively stress can come from events at work.
Fatigue and overwork: Here stress builds up over a long period. This can occur where you try to achieve too much in too little time, or where you are not using effective time management strategies.
STRESS MANAGEMENT: Reducing and Managing Stress
Stress is a part of day to day living. People may experience stress in trying to meet work or academic demands, adjusting to a new living or school or work environment, or developing relationships or friendships. The stress you experience is not necessarily harmful. Mild forms of stress can act as a motivator and energizer. However, if your stress level is too high, medical and social problems can result.
What is Stress?
Although we tend to think of stress as caused by external events, events in themselves are not stressful. Rather, it is the way in which we interpret and react to events that makes them stressful. People differ dramatically in the type of events they interpret as stressful and the way in which they respond to such stress. For example, speaking in public can be stressful for some people and relaxing for others.
Symptoms of Stress:
There are several signs and symptoms that you may notice when you are experiencing stress. These signs and symptoms fall into four categories: Feelings, Thoughts, Behavior, and Physiology. When you are under stress, you may experience one or more of the following:
Fear of failure.
Inability to concentrate.
Worrying about the future.
Preoccupation with thoughts/tasks.
Stuttering and other speech difficulties.
Crying for no apparent reason.
Laughing in a high pitch and nervous tone of voice.
Grinding your teeth.
Increasing use of drugs and alcohol.
Being accident prone.
Losing your appetite or overeating.
Increased heart beat.
Dryness of throat and mouth.
Diarrhea / indigestion / vomiting.
Butterflies in stomach.
Pain in the neck and or lower back.
Loss of appetite or overeating.
Susceptibility to illness.
Causes of Stress:
Both positive and negative events in one's life can be stressful. However, major life changes are the greatest contributors of stress for most people. They place the greatest demand on resources for coping.
Major Life Changes that can be Stressful:
Going to college.
Transfer to a new school.
New life style.
Death of a loved one.
Being fired from your job.
Environmental Events that can be Stressful:
How to Reduce Stress:
Many stresses can be changed, eliminated, or minimized. Here are some things you can do to reduce your level of stress:
Become aware of your own reactions to stress.
Reinforce positive self-statements.
Focus on your good qualities and accomplishments.
Avoid unnecessary competition.
Develop assertive behaviors.
Recognize and accept your limits. Remember that everyone is unique and different.
Get a hobby or two. Relax and have fun.
Eat a balanced diet daily.
Talk with friends or someone you can trust about your worries/problems.
Learn to use your time wisely:
Evaluate how you are budgeting your time.
Plan ahead and avoid procrastination.
Make a weekly schedule and try to follow it.
Set realistic goals.
When studying for an exam, study in short blocks and gradually lengthen the time you spend studying. Take frequent short breaks.
Practice relaxation techniques. For example, whenever you feel tense, slowly breathe in and out for several minutes.
ANXIETY MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES:
Learning to use physical relaxation techniques can help you reduce muscle tension and manage the effects of the fight-or-flight response on your body. This is particularly important if you need to think clearly and perform precisely when you are under pressure.
Any of the three relaxation techniques outlined below can be quite effective in calming your anxieties or lowering your tension or stress level. Some people utilize all three interchangeably while others find one more helpful, on a consistent basis, and stick with their favorite.
Deep breathing is a simple but very effective method of relaxation. It is a core component of everything from the "take ten deep breaths" approach to calming someone down, right through to yoga relaxation and meditation. It works well in conjunction with other relaxation techniques such as Progressive Muscular Relaxation, relaxation imagery and meditation to reduce stress.
To use the technique, take a number of deep breaths and relax your body further with each breath. That's all there is to it!
PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION (PMR):
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is useful for relaxing your body when your muscles are tense.
The idea behind PMR is that you tense up a group of muscles so that they are as tightly contracted as possible. Hold them in a state of extreme tension for a few seconds. Then, relax the muscles to their previous state. Finally, consciously relax the muscles even further so that you are as relaxed as possible.
By tensing your muscles first, you will probably find that you are able to relax your muscles more than would be the case if you tried to relax your muscles directly.
Experiment with PMR by forming a fist, and clenching your hand as tight as you can for a few seconds. Then relax your hand to its previous tension, and then consciously relax it again so that it is as loose as possible. You should feel deep relaxation in your hand muscles.
For maximum relaxation you can use PMR in conjunction with breathing techniques and imagery.
This technique has been found to be highly effective in reducing stress and controlling the fight-or-flight response. Direct effects included deep relaxation, slowed heartbeat and breathing, reduced oxygen consumption and increased skin resistance.
This is something that you can do for yourself by following these steps:
Sit quietly and comfortably.
Close your eyes.
Start by relaxing the muscles of your feet and work up your body relaxing muscles.
Focus your attention on your breathing.
Breathe in deeply and then let your breath out. Count your breaths, and say the number of the breath as you let it out (this gives you something to do with your mind, helping you to avoid distraction).
Do this for ten or twenty minutes.
An even more potent alternative approach is to follow these steps, but to use guided imagery instead of counting breaths in step 5.
One common use of guided imagery is to imagine a scene, place or event that you remember as safe, peaceful, restful, beautiful and happy. You can bring all your senses into the image with, for example, sounds of running water and birds, the smell of cut grass, the taste of cool white wine, the warmth of the sun, and so on. Use the imagined place as a retreat from stress and pressure.
Scenes can involve complex images such as lying on a beach in a deserted cove. You may “see” cliffs, sea and sand around you, “hear” the waves crashing against rocks, “smell” the salt in the air, "taste" the grit of sand in your mouth and “feel” the warmth of the sun and a gentle breeze on your body. Other images might include looking at a mountain view, swimming in a tropical pool, or whatever you want. You will be able to come up with the most effective images for yourself.
Other uses of imagery in relaxation involve creating mental pictures of stress flowing out of your body, or of stress, distractions and everyday concerns being folded away and locked into a padlocked chest.
Imagery in Preparation and Rehearsal
You can also use imagery in rehearsal before a big event, allowing you to prepare for the event in your mind. Aside from allowing you to rehearse mentally, imagery also allows you to practice in advance for anything unusual that might occur, so that you are prepared and already practiced in handling it. This is a technique used very commonly by top sports people, who learn good performance habits by repeatedly rehearsing performances in their imagination. When the unusual eventualities they have rehearsed using imagery occur, they have good, pre-prepared, habitual responses to them.
Imagery also allows you to pre-experience achievement of your goals, helping to give you self-confidence. This is another technique used by successful athletes.
With guided imagery, you substitute actual experience with scenes from your imagination. Your body reacts to these imagined scenes almost as if they were real.
To relax with imagery, imagine a warm, comfortable, safe and pleasant place, and enjoy it in your imagination.
Imagery can be shown to work by using biofeedback devices that measure body stress. By imagining pleasant and unpleasant scenes, you can actually see or hear the changing levels of stress in your body change.
“Deep Breathing,” “Progressive Muscle Relaxation,” and the steps leading to the “Relaxation Response” as well as "Guided Imagery" are four proven, effective techniques that can help you to relax your body and manage the symptoms of the anxiety or stress response.
These are particularly helpful for handling nerves prior to an important performance, and for calming down when you are highly stressed. You can use these on your own or practice perfecting their use with your therapist.
COPING WITH STRESS:
As with another tool (self-hypnosis--see below), meditation has a popular image that can lead to it being dismissed as a less-than-serious stress management tool. This is a shame. Good research has been conducted into meditation that shows it is a useful and practical technique for managing stress. It has been established that these techniques have a very real effect on reducing stress and controlling the fight-or-flight response. Direct effects included slowed heartbeat and breathing, reduced oxygen consumption and increased skin resistance.
As with the next two tools, meditation is a good way of relaxing during, and at the end of, a stressful day. It is something you can learn to do yourself, or may be something you prefer to learn in from a therapist.
The idea behind meditation is to consciously relax your body and focus your thoughts on one thing for a sustained period. This occupies your mind, diverting it from the problems that are causing you stress. It gives your body time to relax and recuperate, and to clear away stress hormones that may have built up.
There is nothing mystical about meditation. On the contrary, it is something that you can do quite easily by following these steps:
Sit quietly and comfortably. Close your eyes. Start by relaxing the muscles of your feet and work up your body relaxing muscles (a technique like Progressive Muscular Relaxation can be useful for this). Focus your attention on your breathing. Breathe in deeply and then let your breath out. Count your breaths, and say the number of the breath as you let it out (this gives you something to do with your mind, helping you to avoid distraction).
Do this for ten or twenty minutes.
Focusing on breathing and counting breaths is just one way you can occupy your mind during meditation. Other approaches are:
Focusing on an object: Here, you completely focus attention on examination of an object. Look at it in immense detail for the entire meditation. Examine the shape, color differences, texture, temperature and movement of the object. Objects often used are flowers, candle flames or flowing designs, but you can use other objects equally effectively (for example alarm clocks, desk lamps or even coffee mugs!)
Focus on a sound:
Some people like to focus on sounds they make. The classic example is the Sanskrit word “Om”, meaning “perfection”. Whether or not this is practical depends on your lifestyle.
This can be a very refreshing and pleasant way of meditating. Here, you create a mental image of a pleasant and relaxing place in your mind. For more information, see our article on imagery.
However you do it, it is important to keep your attention focused. If external thoughts or distractions wander into your mind, let them drift out.
Meditation is a useful and practical relaxation technique. To use it, sit in a comfortable place, close your eyes, relax your body, and focus your concentration on something for a period of time.By meditating, you rest your body, allow stress hormones to subside, and occupy your mind so that unpleasant, stressful thoughts do not intrude.
HYPNOSIS, like meditation, has a dubious image. Many people over many years have made their living by overlaying this practical and useful technique with unwarranted mystical and magical rituals. In fact, it is a useful tool for achieving deep relaxation.
Self-hypnosis is when you hypnotize yourself. This is often more practical as a stress management tool than normal hypnosis, as you do not need to have a hypnotist present.
Drawing on the same "relaxation response" that drives meditation, self-hypnosis helps you to relax your body, lets stress hormones subside, and distracts your mind from unpleasant thoughts. The relaxation achieved with self-hypnosis can be intense. Unlike meditation, we often use affirmations as part of self-hypnosis to manage stress and build self-confidence. Affirmations are the positive statements (based on rational thinking) that we make to ourselves to counter stress and unpleasant thoughts - see our article on Rational and Positive Thinking for more information on this.
Along with meditation and imagery, self-hypnosis can usefully be used as a part of a daily stress management routine.
USING SELF HYPNOSIS:
First, decide if you want to use affirmations as part of your self-hypnosis session (you will still be able to relax deeply if you do not use them). If you do, then prepare the affirmations you want to use before you start the session, as you will not want to think about them once you have reached a state of deep relaxation!
Next, find somewhere comfortable and quiet, and sit down.
Now, relax your body. A good way of doing this is to close your eyes and imagine waves of relaxation running down your body from your scalp downwards, washing out stress. Let the waves run in time with your breathing, first washing down over your head, then your neck, then your torso, then arms, and finally your legs. Feel the muscles in your body relaxing as the waves of relaxation wash over them.
The next step is to use suggestion to deepen the state of relaxation. This can be as simple as saying something like: “I am feeling relaxed and comfortable to yourself. With every breath I am becoming more relaxed and more comfortable…" Alternatively, use the traditional approach of suggesting sleepiness: "I am tired and sleepy. I can feel the heaviness in my arms and legs. I am more and more tired…"
Once you feel completely relaxed, use the affirmations you have prepared. Mix these in with the relaxation suggestions.
Typical self-hypnosis sessions can last between 15 and 25 minutes; however, they can last for as long as you like.
An alternative to using self-hypnosis is to listen to hypnosis audio tapes, CDs or MP3s - the benefit of these is that you can listen to them and relax when you are too tired to want to hypnotize yourself.
Self-hypnosis is a practical and effective technique for relaxing deeply. It can be used with or without affirmations, depending on what you want to achieve.
To use the technique, find somewhere comfortable and quiet to sit down. Think about, and prepare, any affirmations that you might want to use. Start by closing your eyes and relaxing your muscles. A good way of doing this is to use imagery. Move on to use suggestion to relax yourself even more. When you feel very relaxed, use any affirmations that you have prepared. Enjoy the state of hypnosis for as long as you like.
Many people turn to yoga for simple reasons, perhaps they just enjoy it, perhaps they find it relieves stress, maybe yoga helps them to better cope with life’s ups and downs, or perhaps it's because a physician has prescribed it. Regardless of the reason for participating in yoga, the result is almost always a more fulfilled life.
If you have tried yoga, you already know that it can help you achieve your goals with a clearer head, a more in-tune body and a renewed spirit.
There are many benefits of yoga but one must use caution in that no physical fitness program should be taken on without the knowledge and consent of your personal physician.
Before discussing the benefits of yoga, it should also be pointed out that the body is actually an energy system with close interplay between breathing, heart beat and brain function. Yoga provides a useful maintenance service for this system.
Working from the premise that “Life is breath, breath is life,” yoga places great emphasis on making the breathing deep, rhythmic and effective. The principle here is that essential thoughts and messages are delivered more effectively when the body is relaxed and the brain is well-oxygenated, helping the body and mind to work more successfully while feeling less tired and less stressed.
Yoga breathing lowers blood pressure and brings intense relaxation. Of course, shallow breathing does not always cause unclear thinking or low spirits, but it has been medically linked with attacks of depression, mood swings and other various disorders.
Furthermore, improved appearance through better posture, muscle and skin-tone, follows the dedicated practice of yoga. Bones are strengthened and joints become more flexible. And, it can be amazing to see how much more flexible the body is and how much more positive one’s outlook becomes with just a few month’s of yoga practice.
If you are unable to locate a reputable yoga studio in your area, you may benefit from purchasing a DVD or video that allows you to practice yoga in your home. Keep in mind, many of these can be checked-out at your local library or even previewed over the Internet before purchasing.