Anxiety & Stress - Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment
Stress is meant to help us by alerting us to danger so that we can quickly mobilize our inner resources to survive it. Here is some insight into what happens in our bodies when we sense an imminent threat in our environment:
our heart pumps fast and our breathing ramps up to get more blood and oxygen into our bodies;
our pupils dilate and our peripheral vision blurs so we can focus on the danger that is directly in front of us;
our blood pumps out of our brains, stomachs, and reproductive system and into our arms and legs to prepare us to attack or run away;
if our attempts to mobilize our bodies to escape danger are ineffective (i.e., sympathetic nervous system response), our brains and bodies shut down in an effort to protect us from experiencing overwhelming pain (i.e., parasympathetic nervous system response).
All of these changes (and more) happen beyond our conscious awareness - and quickly. When we are in real danger, we don't have time to pause, reflect, and think before we react. These fight-flight-freeze-collapse survival instincts can be life-saving. When the threat passes, our brains and bodies return to their normal resting state. Our thinking, digestive, reproductive, and growth processes are back online. We can rest, learn, and grow in the comfort of safety.
Our brains have the capacity to reflect on the past and anticipate the future. This is the nature of anxiety - when we worry about things that aren't happening right now but can happen. Anxiety triggers the same biochemical reactions and physiological symptoms as stress. Our brains and bodies become mobilized/ activated or immobilized/ deactivated, only all of this is happening in the absence of an imminent threat in our environment. In our everyday lives, a little stress/ anxiety can arouse us in ways that help us perform better - such as on mental tasks (like taking tests) and physical tasks (like playing sports). For those of us who live in the imagery world of catastrophic "what if" thinking, our brains and bodies are constantly on overdrive. Persistent anxiety causes us to live in a chronic state of stress, which takes a cumulative toll on our overall health and wellbeing.
Some people are more vulnerable to experiencing anxiety and its associated challenges. Underlying health issues, medical problems, genetics, and substance and alcohol use/misuse can all increase risk. Environmental factors can also exacerbate struggles with anxiety, which can include personality, sensory sensitivities, accumulated stress, and trauma.
Symptoms of anxiety include:
unwelcome and uncontrollable thoughts of feared people, places, and/or things;
an inner sense of doom, dread, and/or panic;
a desperate need to avoid feared situations or things;
physiological symptoms (e.g., fast heart rate, shallow breathing, dry mouth, nausea, dizziness, tight chest, muscle tension, sweating, trembling, teeth grinding, headache, stomachache);
feeling restless, nervous, and tense;
feeling irritable and agitated;
apprehension and withdrawal;
difficulty focusing, thinking, and remembering;
difficulty falling or staying sleeping;
feeling weak and tired.
The anxiety cycle
People who struggle with anxiety tend to overestimate the threat of external danger and underestimate their internal capacity to cope. People with extreme anxiety become preoccupied with seeking safety, security, and comfort - to the extent that they start backing out of life. When we avoid our fears, we experience short term relief. The problem is that the next time we encounter the same fear, our fear response becomes bigger. When we avoid it again, we feel relief. And this is the anxiety cycle. When fear overruns our life, it undermines our sense of competence, confidence, and empowerment. We begin to feel as if avoiding our fears is the only way to feel good. And we become trapped in a cycle of fear and avoidance. When anxiety is left unchecked, it can develop into a number of anxiety disorders as well as attentional, emotional, behavioral, and medical conditions - including depression.
Anxiety is manageable and treatable with the help of a healthy lifestyle and habits, medication, and/or counselling support. Medication can help regulate the neurochemicals in your brain and body that are responsible for mood, emotion, sleep, appetite, and digestion. Counselling can help you gain insight and skills to relate to your struggles and yourself in a new way - calm, curious, compassionate, courageous, and confident. With support and persistence, you can break the cycle of anxiety, manage your fears, and become empowered to live your life with confidence and freedom.
- Written by Cynthia Yoo, Registered Psychologist -
Anxiety Canada is a website offering free information, articles, and resources on worry, panic, perfectionism, social anxiety, and phobias
My Anxiety Plan is a free self-guided study plan to help children, youth, and parents manage anxiety
MindShift CBT is a free evidence-based
Books on helping parents support their child with anxiety:
Anxious Kids Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children - by Lynn Lyons & Reid Wilson
Parent-Led CBT for Child Anxiety: Helping Parents Help their Kids - by Cathy Creswell, Monika Parkinson, Kerstin Thirlwall, & Lucy Willetts
Hey Warrior: A Book For Kids About Anxiety - by Karen Young