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Ian Wharmby, Registered General Nurse and Clinical Partner Liverpool discusses stress and anxiety, two of the most common mental health issues in the UK and looks at the differences, the causes and what can be done to help.
“Many people suffer from a form of anxiety or stress at some point in their lives – in fact it is thought that 1 in 6 people in the UK have an anxiety disorder at any one time.”
The terms ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are terms often used interchangeably and can affect a person in many different ways; mentally, physically and emotionally they can impact all areas of a person’s life and functioning.
Stress is the response to a threat or situation.
Anxiety is a reaction to that stress and continues after the threat or situation has gone.
It is important to understand that not all anxiety or stress has a negative impact; in fact there are times when it will have a positive benefit, such as when feeling a bit nervous prior to a job interview or some other important situation you are about to face. In these circumstances it helps focus the mind and allows you to rise to the challenge ahead, enabling you to perform well. Think of an athlete, who needs to be in the right mind set in order to perform at their best at a given moment, they are under pressure, but they learn to control the pressure and to use it to help them.
However, there is a fine balance when it comes to when too much stress becomes a bad thing. When the feelings of anxiety or stress are pervasive or overwhelming, the individual can become chronically ill and struggle to perform daily activities – too much stress or anxiety can lead to a ‘nervous breakdown’ which can be hugely debilitating and will require the individual to seek treatment.
The two big areas of life that cause stress for many people are work and domestic life and all that those situations encompass.
So when dealing with anxiety or stress in a therapeutic situation, we are usually dealing with an accumulation of negative experience. This negative effect can occur when a person does not feel equipped to deal with a situation they are a facing, such as a feeling of being out of their depth in their work, or when a person feels unable to handle the daily pressures of life in general and within their relationships.
If we are ever feeling out of our depth then this in itself can cause anxiety and it can become a vicious circle of events; the thoughts of failing and a sense of not coping can weigh very heavy on a person. Of course, what may cause anxiety for one person may not cause anxiety for another, and vice versa. We are all unique in that sense.
“The key to dealing with stress and anxiety is managing it effectively and our experiences growing up influence this.”
The feelings from one difficult encounter can easily colour what happens to us throughout the rest of our day. This in itself can lead to increased feelings of tension and upset. So how we think about those difficult circumstances that are causing the anxiety is very likely to have impact on the actual outcome. Stress and anxieties from our work and our relationships are not always easy to shake off and the negative effects of such stress can often quickly build up.
1. Change or remove the stressor. Sometimes this can or cannot be done in a straight forward or practical way.
2. Learn to manage it. If a stressor can’t be removed or changed then managing it often becomes a process.
People try to manage anxiety to the best of their ability. With work difficulties they may repeatedly tell themselves to try to focus harder, maybe work a bit faster to get more done in the same time. They think if they can get through the next few weeks or months, it will be OK, but more often than not the pressure keeps rising.
In relationships, people may choose to avoid any confrontation, or may even actively pursue it, thinking it will change the relationships.
In my experience people generally seek help from a therapist when they have run out of their own resources mentally, emotionally and physically, and they do not know what to do or which way to turn.
They might absent from work, waking up one day and simply not been able to function, or difficult relationship pressures may have ground them down and eroded their confidence in their own ability as a person.
It can be said that anxiety is a concern regarding something, someone or some event in the future, be it something minutes away or an unknown timescale. This sense of foreboding hangs like a black cloud on the horizon, with a sense of real uncertainty about the future.
An anxiety response is our bodies way of dealing what can be interpreted as a possible threat, it is an adrenaline response, that causes a fight or flight scenario. The symptoms we can experience affect all our mind and body and can impact all areas of our lives.
At times were negative accumulative anxiety and stressors have gone on for long time, a person’s bodily adrenaline response becomes heightened and their mind becomes hyper alert, this can often lead to emotional over reactions in situations where they would previously have been well in control of themselves.
Overtime with anxiety and stress that accumulates a person can lose a sense of their own identity and purpose in life, but a positive outlook and hope for the future can be regained.
The first step to successfully managing any anxiety or stress in life is the acknowledgement that it won’t go away without a different approach. By continuing to try to manage a situation the same way as previously done, it will only give the same results.
For many people, beginning to talk to a professional therapist about their concerns and anxieties allows them to have some insight into their own character. This leads to an increased understanding of themselves in the difficult situations being faced, and with this new understanding becomes a renewed sense of the choices and options open to them. A new found ability to coping is often found.
As a therapist often I find that people are genuinely reassured when they realise that their own thoughts and feelings are not an isolated case and that many other people experience very similar difficulties.
Life by its very nature has its anxieties and we don’t know what the future has in store for us.
Most people want to feel in control of their lives and to be content; learning to manage life’s anxieties effectively is a step closer to achieving that.
If you are struggling with anxiety and stress, help is at hand. Clinical Partners offer private psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy nationwide.