How to deal with Anxiety and Stress

Anxiety disorders are amongst the most prevalent mental health conditions. The term is used differently in medical literature and online content but generally serves as an umbrella term for a multitude of anxiety-related disorders including panic, phobias, separation anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Anxiety is often marked by symptoms including fear, nervousness and chronic distress. Anxiety can be treated with behavioral interventions and pharmacologicals, with new medical discoveries offering alternative treatments to target the condition. 

Stress is not always bad for you. Small amounts of stress can help increase focus and increase the body’s defense mechanisms. However, chronic stress can cause severe psychological and physical damage.

Symptoms of stress overload include memory problems and isolation, in addition to physical manifestations such as pain, nausea and a rapid heart rate. Stressors, also known as factors causing stress, can be anything from work-related problems to relationships, physical sickness and many other internal and external factors. 

Stress and anxiety are classified as disorders when they inhibit the ability to function normally. If you find that your normal lifestyle is impeded by symptoms rooting from situations of unease and uncertainty, you might be suffering from an anxiety or stress disorder.

What are the signs of anxiety and stress

The onset of chronic anxiety and stress can be marked by a wide variety of signs and symptoms. Anxiety is responsible for activating the body’s stress response. This in turn causes high stress levels throughout the body to develop various symptoms.

In fact, there are over 100 symptoms associated with anxiety and stress that could manifest both physically and mentally. Chest pains, head anxiety, hearing and ear problems, heart palpitations, digestive complications and mood symptoms are all common indicators.

Most anxiety disorders share some common symptoms:

  • Sleep disturbances and insomnia
  • Restlessness, uneasiness and fear
  • Shortness of breath and chest pains
  • Nausea and gastrointestinal complications
  • Shaking, trembling and the inability to stay still
  • Weakness and fatigue

Symptoms and signs of anxiety and stress will vary from person to person. These signs are often compounded by factors such as gender, age, medical history, emotional state and other external influences. Stress hormones that enter the bloodstream also affect hormones in both men and women.

If you find that you experience just one or even several of these symptoms over a prolonged period of time and know that it is not the result of other medical conditions or a side-effect of medicinal drugs, consider consulting a mental health care professional to get a diagnosis.

Online anxiety tests could also help identify the severity of your symptoms and condition. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or performing self-inflicted harm, seek immediate medical assistance.

What are the causes of anxiety

It is difficult to determine the root causes of anxiety as this varies from person to person. However, there are certain circumstances and factors that are thought to influence anxiety including:

  • Traumatic experiences

  • Abuse or neglect

  • Drastic lifestyle changes

  • Lifestyle habits

  • Genetics

  • Underlying health issues (mental and physical)

  • Stressful circumstances

Common external factors that could cause anxiety or symptoms of anxiety include financial problems, work- or school-related stress, bullying, medicinal side effects, the use of illicit drugs and even environmental factors such as allergies.

Diagnosing anxiety is a major challenge for healthcare professionals, especially in cases where the patient is unable to pinpoint factors that could contribute to the condition. Sometimes there is no specific cause that can be identified as causing symptoms of anxiety. Understanding the root cause of your anxiety may be painful but will assist in getting you back on the path to recovery.

How to deal with general anxiety and stress (evidence supported treatments)

Thankfully, all is not lost if you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or symptoms. There are several evidence-based treatments that could help alleviate symptoms and assist recovery from general anxiety and stress back to a normal, healthy lifestyle.

CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) 

Therapy is often a preferred form of treatment for anxiety and anxiety-related disorders as it targets the root of the problem, not just the symptoms. Cognitive behavioural therapy helps patients to overcome anxiety and develop coping mechanisms, positive thought patterns and healthier mental wellness habits.

CBT is considered a highly effective method for the treatment of anxiety disorders. It often includes a process known as cognitive restructuring. Negative thinking patterns that are thought to cause anxiety are identified, challenged and replaced with realistic and positively inclined thoughts.

This helps patients to not only confront fears but also deal with them in a manner that ensures the ability to cope with challenges in the long term. Other CBT techniques include journaling, relaxed breathing and playing out scenarios that contain common stressors. Here is a comprehensive list of additional CBT techniques that can be used to enhance the effect of behavioural therapy for anxiety and stress. 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness refers to the mental state of being conscious or aware at a present moment in time. As a treatment for anxiety, it is often associated with the acknowledgment of your emotions, bodily responses and thoughts within particular circumstances.

Mindfulness can be used to consciously control behaviours and thoughts that lead to increased worry and fear. Basic values of this treatment include patience, acknowledgement, self-reliance and self-compassion. 

Studies show that mindfulness is a promising alternative treatment for treating anxiety and stress. It’s a versatile therapy that can be performed at any time in any location without equipment. Some exercises include basic controlled breathing, meditation and meditative activities such as yoga and journaling. Mindfulness activities for groups can be used to treat social anxiety and related disorders.

Exercise

Regular exercise helps release feel-good endorphins that work to relieve stress. Moderate exercise such as walking around, stretching and aerobics on a regular basis can provide significant relief from common anxiety symptoms. There are forms of exercise that are fun to perform and can be especially effective when combined with music and performed in groups.

Running, hiking, dancing and strength training can help improve mood and reduce stress. Additional benefits of regular exercise include better sleep and boosted self-esteem and confidence. Research indicates that physical exercise improves biological and psychological mechanisms with positive influences. 

Medication

Medication is often prescribed for anxiety and will vary depending on symptoms and the type of anxiety that has been diagnosed. It can be combined with exercise and psychotherapy to be more effective.

In some cases, medication is necessary to motivate patients to follow treatment and therapy plans. Various types of medication have different risks, benefits and side effects that need to be kept in mind. 

Some common types of medications that are often prescribed for stress and anxiety:

  • Antidepressants
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Buspirone
  • Beta Blockers

Benzodiazepines such as xanax or valium enhance neurotransmitters in the brain and generate sedative effects but are usually prescribed for no longer than a month at a time.

Buspirone is commonly prescribed in addition to antidepressants, while beta blockers help limit physical symptoms of anxiety such as high heart rates, sweating and shakiness. They work by blocking adrenaline and offer a natural alternative in the form of herbal-based medicines.

Medication can take up to 8 weeks to be effective but when they kick in, they can be incredibly useful for treating anxiety disorders. Side effects to most of these medications include nausea, vomiting, digestive complications, insomnia and weight fluctuations. Always consult a doctor before starting with new medication and follow label instructions carefully for drugs that have been prescribed.

Supplements

Supplements can be used to increase levels of amino acids and improve functioning of neurotransmitters and chemicals in the brain. Natural supplements have little side effects and can be effective in alleviating several symptoms of anxiety. Some of the best supplements for anxiety include:

  • L-Theanine
  • GABA
  • B-Complex vitamins
  • St. John’s Wort

Probiotics with live cultures can also help heal the gut and improve mental health that is connected to the gut’s microbiome. Symptoms such as sleep disturbance and digestive issues are often resolved with probiotic supplements.

Magnesium is another natural solution that can balance out deficiencies: magnesium deficiency is often associated with several anxiety symptoms. Magnesium lowers the body’s production of cortisol, the stress hormone that often aggravates anxiety and stress.

Things to avoid when you have anxiety

Certain habits and food types may exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety. Sleep deprivation and disturbance are common symptoms of anxiety and stress. One habit to avoid when you have anxiety is going to bed late or avoiding sleep.

Herbal teas and essential oils can help set a relaxing mood before bedtime to encourage deeper sleep. Going to bed at the same time each night and getting regular exercise also help stabilize sleeping patterns. 

Speaking of exercise - avoid laziness and inactivity when you have anxiety as this can make the journey to recovery much harder. Avoiding drugs and stimulants is also a wise decision if you can identify signs of anxiety in your behaviour or suffer from chronic stress. Illegal hard drugs and tobacco can make symptoms much worse.

There are several foods and drinks that are also best avoided when you have anxiety:

  • Caffeine and alcohol: Caffeine is a psychoactive substance and acts as a stimulant. Caffeine can make anxiety worse by intensifying feelings of nausea, fear and nervousness. Alcohol reduces levels of serotonin in the brain, thereby affecting the nervous system and emphasizing negative symptoms such as increased heart rate. Here’s a healthy alternative to try instead: herbal tea that can help manage anxiety.  

  • Processed foods and refined sugars: Sugar and processed foods impair the body’s ability to deal with stress and factors that cause anxiety. Effects include mood fluctuations, fatigue and heart tremors.

  • Fried foods and excess sodium: Foods high in fat and sodium can damage the immune system and cause insomnia, weight gain and high blood pressure. Salt and fried foods need to be taken in absolute moderation.

  • Dairy: If anxiety has caused symptoms of gastrointestinal disturbance and discomfort, dairy is best avoided as it leads to prolonged bloating, diarrhea and constipation.

How to deal with social anxiety

Social anxiety most often stems from the fear of social situations that require interaction with other people. It also includes the fear of public speaking, using public restrooms and eating in front of others. The severity of social anxiety will often determine the type and duration of treatment that is required.

There are several easy exercises and habits that can be formed to overcome mild to moderate forms of anxiety. For example, deep breathing, creating and sticking to goals and developing coping strategies can be used to lower the intensity of anxiety.

Shifting your focus and focusing on sensory details could help calm your body enough to lower heart rate. Challenging yourself to face situations that induce feelings of anxiety can help create behavioral patterns to better deal with anxiety.

For more serious episodes of anxiety, working with a professional therapist who specializes in anxiety will be especially useful. Treatments such as cognitive behavior therapy, supplements and exercise are also good therapies to assist with anxiety and anxiety-related symptoms.

How to deal with anxiety attacks

Anxiety attacks can occur at any time and place. They are difficult to deal with in public and are frightful. It is important to be armed with methods and techniques to deal with anxiety attacks. Here are some things to try:

  • Work on your breathing: Anxiety attacks can hinder breathing by closing the throat and tightening the chest. Trouble breathing can make an anxiety attack worse by increasing fear of suffocation. Breathe in slowly through the nose and out through the mouth to calm down. Closing your eyes and focusing on breathing can help prevent further anxiety.
  • Quelch negative thoughts: Try to stay positive and focus on blocking out negative thoughts. Divert your attention and work hard to remain in control of your body’s response to stress.
  • Relax the muscles: Anxiety causes the body to tighten up. Try to relax your muscles by stretching or doing a few jumps up and down to release pent up energy. At times when you are feeling calm, try to find a few stretches and exercises that would be most effective during an attack.
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