If you’re a human, you’ve dealt with stress.
We all face it — school, jobs, moving, breakups, loss, etc. Add the pandemic, social/cultural issues, and climate change, and many of us can become cyclones of stress and anxiety.
While being stressed isn’t new, the way we understand and approach stress as both individuals and as a society is shifting. As more and more research is done, we see the detrimental effects of stress both physically and mentally.
In April of 2020, Forbes reported that:
“The amount of Americans reporting anxiety symptoms is triple the number of this time last year.”
Great. We’re all more stressed than ever. But before we look for a solution, it’s first very important to understand the causes of stress and anxiety, what they do to us, and why.
Stress vs. Anxiety
As someone who’s both stressed and anxious often, I find it hard to delineate between the two. Are they that different? Does one cause the other? Are they frenemies or BFFs?
Stress is defined as a response to an external trigger. You’re prepping for an exam, a job interview, or you hit a major traffic jam. There’s a stressful thing, your body reacts to the stress, then it’s over.
Anxiety is an internal reaction to something that is perceived as threatening. Anxiety is often a by-product of stress and can also be persistent long after the stressful event or trigger has passed.
Is Stress the Chicken Or the Egg?
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences tells us:
“Stress-related disorders result from abnormal responses to acute or prolonged anxiety, and can include obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health tends to be a low research priority in public health and whose impacts on human and societal well being are often underestimated.”
There are two critical takeaways here:
- Anxiety can cause stress-related disorders
- Mental health impacts societal well being
If you’re someone who is stressed often, your anxiety is going to ramp up. An external event triggers stress, and you continue to feel anxious about it, or your anxiety increases just thinking about participating in an external event that previously triggered stress.
It can become a vicious cycle that spins our minds into a ball of worry and misery.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19% of Americans over the age of 18 had an anxiety disorder in the past year, and 31% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes.
How Does Stress Affect Our Bodies?
Remember this: stress has major effects on our physical health. It affects all of the systems in our bodies — musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.
Take a minute to let that sink in.
Often, we brush off stress or anxiety. “Oh, I’m fine, just a little stressed.” If you find yourself saying this a lot, watch out. Chronic stress damages our physical self.
When we’re stressed, our bodies undergo physiological changes by releasing stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) which gets us into that fight-or-flight mode. Fight or flight is when your parasympathetic nervous system signals to your endocrine system to increase its response mechanism (aka s*** is going down so get ready.)
This is great if you’re faced with zombies, but it’s taxing and physically damaging if it happens too often.
Your respiratory system may react, and you’ll be short of breath or breathe rapidly. Your airways may constrict. And let’s not forget the cardiovascular system. Since short-term stress often affects our heart-rate/blood pressure, long-term stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
How Do I Deal with Stress & Anxiety
Knowledge is power, right? So figuring out why you’re stressed and what exactly makes you anxious is a key step in lessening the effects of both stress and anxiety. The more you understand your own mind and why you react the way you do, the more power you have to mitigate your reactions.
For some people, this means talking with a licensed mental health professional. For others, it’s journaling, talking with a friend, or meditating and practicing mindfulness. All of these are excellent options.
If you Google ‘stress management,’ the same few things will pop up:
Yes, keep these up (as best you can), but another helpful tool for stress and anxiety comes from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
CBT is commonly used by psychologists when working with someone who has stress or anxiety problems. CBT focuses on looking at the patterns in an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
- Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.
- Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.
- People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.
CBT works to identify possible negative or false beliefs we have about ourselves. Here’s an example:
Let’s say I failed a test, and my brain goes, “Wow, I’m stupid and can’t get anything right.” The ‘Wow, I’m stupid’ moment is an example of both a negative and false belief I have. I actually can get stuff right and do much of the time. But perhaps, in the face of failure, I’ve created a pattern of feeling totally defeated and being down on myself when it happens.
CBT would ask me to look at my initial thought upon failure, analyze my feelings around that thought, and then reframe my behavior.
How Can I Use CBT When I’m Anxious?
During the height of the pandemic, I found something as simple as going to the grocery store very stressful. By using Albert Ellis’s popular ABC method (Activating Event, Belief, Consequences), I can examine my thoughts:
A: What is the Activating Event?
Going to Trader Joes.
B: What is my Belief?
There are too many people, and I could get Covid and/or maybe infect someone.
C: What are the Consequences?
I’m anxious, depressed, and embarrassed.
YIKES! In this case, I have to examine my belief and figure out if it’s rational or irrational. According to most research, going to the grocery store is a low-risk activity if you are masked. So, my freakout about contracting or transmitting the virus isn’t 100% rational. I have to work on reframing my beliefs so that my consequences aren’t so dire.
It’s not easy, it takes time, but it has definitely helped me conquer the grocery store during a pandemic (hooray for small wins).
Stress is normal. The trick is knowing what’s normal for you and what’s too much. There are MANY ways to deal with stress and anxiety – finding what works for you is the most important thing. It may take some trial and error (I’m still awful at meditating), but chronic stress will wreak havoc on your mind and body, so it’s important to deal with it.
For me, incorporating CBT techniques has helped. CBT has been widely researched and consistently shows to be effective in treating many psychological problems, in addition to anxiety and stress. It takes time and work to ‘reprogram’ our negative thoughts, but it’s doable if you’re willing.