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How does stress and anxiety appear to you? I usually notice the physical symptoms first. A twinge in my tummy. A weird, almost clammy like feeling on my skin. Twitchy muscles. Then the mental side of things kicks in. The buzzing in my head. The incontrollable urge to cry. It’s different to panic I think, which seems to paralyse as it works its way through the body, closing off your ability to think rationally and see anywhere outside of the moment you’re caught in.
Stress and it’s co-pilot, anxiety, is more of a slow burn, almost like an ever present element that simmers away until you overcrowd the pot and cause the contents to bubble up and over the sides. My pot boiled over a couple of Fridays ago. A daycare invoice, the cost of a wheel alignment and going into the overdraft two days after payday was enough to trigger the sensations that I’ve become a bit more accustomed to lately than I’d really like to be.
There’s a couple of behaviours I’ve now realised that I seem to employ, alongside the actual symptomatic experiences, when a stress attack strikes. None are especially unusual and not a single one is helpful in any way. I’d actually hazard a guess that they probably make things worse and possibly prolong the initial stress spike and eventual retreat.
– Draw inward – As a pretty open, chatty person this is kind of a weird reaction but one that seems almost automatic. I immediately clam right up and disengage from whatever and whoever is apparent in the moment. If I’m alone, this tends to go un-noticed but even when I’m with people, it’s not automatically noticeable. It’s usually only when my husband or someone close to me notices that I’m being very quiet that they enquire.. and I shut them down with the standard; ‘I’m fine, just tired/hungry/exhausted/not feeling 100%.’
– Tighten up – Similarly to the above really, stress and anxiety seems to make my body tense right up. I can almost feel my muscles start to curl in on themselves, especially those in my shoulders and neck. It’s the physical manifestation of the tightness I’m feeing internally.
– Seek out sugar or sweets – My immediate reaction to being accosted by a stressful situation or something that throws off my inner equilibrium, is to seek out something from the chocolate family. I’m not 100% certain whether this is a conditioned response, an emotional need or an actual physical desire to consume a cocktail of ingredients that will immediately distract and relieve. I’ve convinced myself, over many, many years, that chocolate will make me feel better and my body and mind almost accepts that as fact now.
– Fall immediately into a flight or fight mindset – When stress and anxiety strikes, I seem to decide that I either need to exit the area immediately OR I immediately bristle for battle, devising an action plan in my head to try and counteract whatever it is that’s popped onto my radar. While both of these responses can be helpful in certain circumstances, they’re not always possible or useful. Running away isn’t practical and doesn’t solve the problem at hand. And having an action plan can be sensible but isn’t always possible. Fighting or flighting also detracts from the idea of mindfulness and being able to sit with the emotions that are causing you pain. By constantly deflecting, I’m unable to deal with the real root of the issue, or at least, try and disempower it to an extent where it becomes less scary and more manageable.
On Friday, during this particular stress attack, I actually observed each of these behaviours and reactions as they popped up. I first decided to try and find some Tim Tams in my parents cupboard (having a 25 year old male in residence means junk food is usually plentiful). I then completely withdrew from my husband when he asked why I suddenly looked a bit weird. I noticed that I was hunched over the computer, shoulders bunched up around my ears while I madly tried to devise a way of making myself, and the situation, better. My eyes strayed numerous times to my car keys and I debated whether I should go for a drive or a walk somewhere, anywhere that might reduce the levels of stress rocketing through my body.
It was kind of weird, feeling AND observing these things at the same time but, in a way it was necessary. It let me see, first hand, exactly how my body and mind were reacting to these regular bouts of stress and the spikes in anxiety and the impact my management of them was having on my health. I knew that, after my adrenalin and cortisol levels had subsided, I’d find that I’d crashed into a pit of jittery exhaustion and would have a hard time climbing back out. And so, instead of letting the usual cycle continue to unfold (eat/withdraw/tighten/panic/eat again/panic some more/tighten up further), I opened my mouth.
“I’m feeling very stressed and anxious right now and not very good,” was what I said to my husband. The floodgates had been opened. I explained exactly how I was feeling, the sensations flowing through my body, where my head was at, pretty much the whole shebang. And while there was nothing he could do to a) stop what was happening internally and b) change the external factors that had caused the attack in the first place, by pricking the surface, all the hot air seemed to escape. The intensity of my emotions and the sensations in my body lessened. The worst case scenarios became less likely. I was able to breathe.
By observing the patterns I tend to adhere in the lead up and during a stress attack or spike in anxiety, I’m slowly (slowly) learning how to re-route away from a complete meltdown and towards something less dramatic and more positive. I’m coming to realise just how easy it is for me to become stressed and just how often it is that I become stressed over something that I can’t actually change. Learning to deal with the stuff that you find unpleasant but can’t actually change, at least not immediately and directly, is tough. I want nothing more than to improve our financial situation and eliminate certain behaviours and thinking patterns that I tend to fall into. Adding an extra element of self-blame and stress however doesn’t end up making things any better. It ends up making them worse.
While I don’t think it’s as simple as reminding myself to ‘think positive’, I am trying to layer my fears and stressors with a stronger touch of reality. I’m deliberately not engaging with the worst case, ‘what if’ scenarios. I’m observing myself carefully and noticing when I start to unconsciously tighten and withdraw and consciously working on un-tightening and opening up, usually through talking, journalling or meditation. Somehow, each of those things, even though it’s the absolute LAST thing I usually want to do, works as the switch to flick off the rising anxiety and place me on a less fraught path.
It’s definitely a work in progress but something I’m determined to continue mastering.
I’d LOVE to hear from you… How do you manage your stress and anxiety levels? Do you ever react like I do? Any sure fire tips or strategies? Please feel free to SHARE in the comments!
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