When we hear the words stress, worry and anxiety we tend to picture sleepless nights, shakiness, shortness of breath, and the inability to think clearly. Indeed these symptoms and others are prominent in all three states of emotional distress, making it confusing to describe both our feelings and the extent of impact. It turns out that there are differences between stress, worry and anxiety and professionals agree that while everyone responds differently to life's challenges, it is how we react to stressful events, triggers, and situations that determine the level of discomfort and disruption we experience in our minds and bodies. Let's start with stress.
Stress is the body's reaction to some sort of perceived threat. It is a physical response to a usually harmless situation. Stress can be thought of as our body's built-in alarm system that temporarily protects us. Does this mean that stress is automatically full blown diagnosable anxiety? No. In fact, most of the time stress is short-lived and is a short-term response to remove us from "danger". When the event causing the stress disappears, so do the feelings of angst. Keep in mind that stress can also be eustress where it acts as a catalyst for motivation and productivity.
Prolonged stress, such as a difficult divorce or emotional abuse, however, can lead to extreme emotional and mental exhaustion and diagnosed anxiety. Stress that goes unattended contributes to the anxiety that causes 60 % of human illness and disease and plagues over 40 million Americans 18 and older (as reported by the American Institute of Stress).
Worry is also a form of protection. It has been around for as long as the human brain. The brain is designed to detect threats when we feel unsafe, scared, or in danger. In fact, a little worry is good. It keeps us from getting hit by a car when we are riding our bicycles on a freeway. Excessive worry is not good as it interferes with our daily lives.
Both stress and worry can mimic true anxiety in terms of symptoms.
Clearly stress responses to daily pressures and obstacles and worry involve irrational and illogical thoughts, making anxiety a reality if not managed properly. Being able to visualize what occurs in the brain when our response to a perceived threat sets off our internal stress alarm can help us minimize our reactions to stress provoking events and situations.
It is said that the brain's limbic system (thinking center) is fully activated upon perceiving immediate danger or worry. This puts the frontal lobe (the "new brain"- the one in charge of logic, reason, creative thinking, language, problem-solving, and compassion) - on pause. Be mindful that sometimes a simple thought can trigger this response because the new brain is sensitive to stress.
When the frontal lobe is not functioning properly and on pause, we react irrationally, illogically, with emotion, and without reason. When we can't "fix" these brain activations that we can sustain true, long-lasting anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is the most severe form of angst and has to be diagnosed by a professional. GAD is a long-standing state of being. Yes, it can be triggered by stress. The main difference from stress is that anxiety does not tend to leave once the precipitating trigger or event dissipates.
For someone who suffers with GAD, the act of worrying is not typically in short doses. GAD sufferers worry about an array of things for most of their day, some to the point of being unable to carry out daily activities. True anxiety is mentally, emotionally and physically paralyzing.
It all begins when our ears, eyes, noses, and other senses pick up on something potentially dangerous or harmful. The senses send the information to a tiny part in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala runs the "fight or flight" response and is in control of our emotions, behaviors, and our self-soothing systems. The amygdala is responsible for our survival and safety, but it also does something else.
The amygdala takes this information, interprets it's meaning, and sends an alerting message to other parts of the brain that control the nervous systems. Neurons start firing and messaging and neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and adrenalin tell our bodies to be on alert. In turn our bodies presenting increased heart rate, shallow breathing, tightness in the chest, sweaty palms, and even panic. Hormones like cortisol are also released to increase our sugar production for quick energy.
This process is all in efforts to survive!
What does this all mean?
Besides there being a difference between stress, worry and anxiety, it means that because we are human and have a brain, we are complicated. Secondly, it means that we are normal because we DO experience anxious feelings. And, it also means that some of us experience stress and worry at a higher degree, and more than just occasionally, making our lives more challenging.
If you are one of the 6.8 million Americans who are affected by GAD, you have unrealistic fears, you don't sleep well, you persistently worry, overthink, panic, or have phobias. Anxieties in these form have taken on a life of their own and affect everything one does, says and feels. This is not stress. This is not worry. This is anxiety in its finest form operating as an internal and external cycle of fear and discomfort.
Despite our individual brains chemistries, genetic predispositions, and environmental experiences, what we do with uncomfortable feelings and thoughts is what matters. How we manage the symptoms and control the degree of interference will determine how persistent stress, worry and anxiety becomes.
What is a "virtual" coach? Every week I get questions about how a virtual coach works with a student. A virtual professional stress coach partners with a student from any state (I just live in SC close to USC) and meets with him or her via Skype, Face Time, Zoom, or simply tele-conferencing (phone). There is no face to face meetings (except I deliver services to USC students on campus). My job as a coach is to guide the student through challenging areas. We explore the causes, the struggles, the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We use professionally developed tools and set personal strategies that are specific to the challenge. We meet once a week for 4 weeks (to begin or end with).
Why not face to face? I designed Carolina Lifestyle Coaching and Consulting, LLC for the busy college student and the worried parents. This forum of exchange (use of electronics) and help affords flexibility, convenience, and affordability. The term "virtual" can be confusing but this is ONLY because this concept of helping students is fairly new. I am not a therapist despite having a master's degree in human behavior and social work. I am not covered under insurance plans. I do not diagnose or prescribe medications but certainly have experience in the mental health field.
I team up with my students and support them through roadblocks and towards success. Coaching works! Please visit: www.carolinalifestylecoachingandconsulting.com for a broader view of how virtual coaching helps students. Call (540) 256-2589 for any questions or reach out through email to Lori@carolinalifestylecoachingandconsulting.com.
4/28/2018 0 Comments
Our young adult children (arguably) are faced with more challenges, pressures, and worries than we faced growing up. Many when asked can’t describe “who they are” at their core. They are confused and flounder especially when there is an emotional or mental challenge such as how to handle stress, when to say "no, or how to problem solve. Here is the question: How effective are college aged kids at dealing with life and life's crap?
How well someone maneuvers through life is determined by many things, but having internal standards and a core sense of self is one crucial piece that will decide the ease or difficulty with which they cope with life. What this means is:
From what values, authentic beliefs, and personal rules do they operate each day?
If kids are encouraged to recognize and build their core strengths (moral and emotional) at a young age, they won’t flail in difficult situations. Having solid beliefs about how the world works, their place in it, individual rules about how to behave, and confidence in what they stand for all make foundation of self.
At an early age kids organize beliefs and standards into a workable system that carries them through life. They learn to trust their instincts, rely on their "I can do it" mentality, and exercise the courage and confidence it takes to put this system into practice. They learn to revise, rethink, accept, and to redirect. They learn that difficult is okay and that stress is normal. They know that they are not the mistake and the mistake doesn't determine what they stand for. They realize events happen and that there aren't always answers.
Some neuroscientists claim that somewhere in the realm of 95% of behaviors and core beliefs are pre-programmed and developed in the first two decades of life and learned from parents. If these beliefs are ones of self-reliance, resilience, and courage, the real world is not that scary and struggles are managed with success.
While things create an internal sense of self, the issue that young adults are faced with is forgetting their strengths, forgetting to return to their point of reference, and abandoning their true sense of self. This is when we see them giving into peer pressure, forming perfectionistic tendencies, forgetting self-care and how to say "no", struggling with situational depression, losing confidence in their aspirations, worrying about the small stuff, accessing joy on a daily basis, prioritizing their self-esteem, and even vacating their true position in life.
How can we help? When we allow our children to fail and own it, when we ask them to apologize, encourage them to interact, connect and engage in family and other relationships, and talk to them daily about their thoughts and feelings we are depositing in long-term insurance. Our role is to help them determine their position in life by creating self-worth, self-reliance and self-comfort.
By the time a child turns eighteen years old shouldn't they have a solid point of reference that is their compass in life? Shouldn't they have a self-monitoring system in place that allows them to lead with core values? And, shouldn’t they at age eighteen be able to instinctively feel happy and secure?
In a perfect world, yes, but there are no protections and little guarantees in this life.
The only guarantee is that there is always a home-base, a safe retreat, and an internal haven where our young adults can return when they are "tried". That place has to be built soundly on a solid foundation of self.
It is never too late to start building and securing this place of self-centered value, but it needs to be a place where intentional presence and calm is undeniable, a place where outside stresses are given little merit, a place where life's discordances seem less overwhelming, and a place where reliance on self is a natural tendency.
To encourage building a solid point of reference and develop a core sense of self, here are some valuable questions:
1. What makes you truly happy?
2. When are you most comfortable with just "being"?
3. When are you fully yourself with no outside pushes and pulls?
4. How will you be available to yourself at all times?
5. How will you be the author of your own story?
6. How will you constantly realign your actions with your beliefs and purpose?
7. How will you harmonize what you think, feel and do?
8. How will you keep clear your reality about what it is you truly want in life?
9. How will you accept that others' values and beliefs can’t change yours?
10. How will you keep your personal power or give it away when feeling weak?
11. How will you return to your values when threatened or challenged?
12. How will you know when you have strayed from your core?
I am hearing more and more accounts of college aged students who don’t know how to feel comfortable with discomfort. They can't navigate emotions, flexibly think, and to tap into resiliency. They truly believe life's challenges and set backs are meant to harm. Consequently, we see an elevation in stress, anxiety and depression.
Turns out, there is a term for not being aware of and accepting of your emotions. Having a lack of "emotional agility" is when you cannot live in the moment, read the present situation, act in accordance with your values and then respond appropriately (David, Susan, "Emotional Agility").
In order to be emotionally successful in life, kids and young adults both have to learn that pain, hurt, rejection, and sadness are normal everyday emotions. In life, there are difficult emotions and positive emotions, but neither is better or worse than the other. They are what they are...feelings. They fluctuate, visit at different times, and are felt in various degrees.
The "negative emotions" - the ones that are seemingly unbearable - don’t last. They are transient and fleeting. While they are present, it is crucial to be able to balance the positive emotions with the not-so-fun emotions and to push through the urge to resist the uncomfortable ones. Instead, become friends with doubt and uncertainty. Allow yourself to be sad. Allow yourself to be in an unknowing position. Avoiding these emotions, running from them, covering them up, and panicking merely sets the stage for depression, anxiety, and a lifetime of worry. It is a skill to be able to cope and self-rely. It is also a skill to recognize that most emotions are trying to teach you to regulate your responses and reactions.
If you ask young adults to describe what it feels like to be alone, doubtful, rejected, or scared, they’ll tell you it is the worse feeling in the world. Do you want to know why these feelings are raw and real to them?
Kids have not learned how to read their own emotions. Some don’t have the forethought to realize that in three days thoughts, feelings and outlooks will be different. They don’t know how to armor up and fight through. They haven't been taught how to build emotional strength or how to self-soothe with their own internal resources. They are used to quick fixes. They believe that feeling negative emotions makes them weak. They forget to approach emotions from a life balance perspective.
Kids want a certain outcome but not the feelings that go with obtaining the outcome.
How can parents help?
Help your students (all ages) by encouraging them to allow the pain and uncertainty they sometimes feel. Don’t heighten their emotions with your heightened concern. Listen to them talk. Have them process their feelings through you. Remind them that they are emotionally strong and able and need to invent a space between feeling the discomfort and responding to the discomfort. Have them see the worst case scenario and ask them how they will survive it. Be their voice for compassion so when they feel bad for feeling bad, you can assure them that judgement is not necessary. And...
Help them see value in experiencing all kinds of emotions:
What can they learn from the situation for use next time the same feelings arise?
What are the emotions speaking to them?
How can they become stronger through the experience?
How can they become "friends" with the fear and sadness and use this "friendship" to make them more emotionally agile next time?
No one is happy all of the time. This belief sets you up for anxiety, stress and depression. Focus on what means the most to you, what you value most in life, what motivates you and how you can believe in your abilities. This concentration protects you from the emotional ups and downs in life, helps you develop "bounce back", and helps you find joy along the way.
This is a basic explanation of some of the science behind what happens in the brain and body when we experience anxiety. There is so much more to it, but understanding these basics can help you begin to look at what is happening in the brain so you can shift thoughts from uncertainty, fear, and discomfort to acceptance. Not resisting the uncomfortable feelings associated with the thoughts all while accepting the thoughts as probably false, distorted and unrealistic can ease your physical and psychological symptoms.
This is called anxiety management. It is also called brain training or cognitive behavioral therapy. It works with practice and persistence.