Stress and Anxiety are the same phenomena, except that Anxiety feels more psychological while Stress feels more physiological. The term “Anxiety”, originally coined by Freud from the word ANGST (fear) in his native language, German, makes people more uncomfortable to speak about because it sounds more like a mental diagnosis.
On the other hand, stress is understood to be a natural reaction to danger. Normally our body activates this mechanism in life-threatening situations. Unfortunately, in modern times, anxiety has become an epidemic. It sneaks up on us in everyday life.
In order to understand how anxiety/stress are triggered and how to reverse these reactions, we need to understand the structure and mechanism of the Nervous System.
The science behind stress/anxiety
The nervous system is divided into two subsystems: The Central Nervous System (CNS) is the BRAIN and the Spinal Cord and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) is in the network of nerves in the body from the neck down.
Let’s start with the PNS: When we sense an oncoming danger (environmental, natural, or otherwise) or when we feel attacked personally, the PNS gets into action and Fast! Our Adrenal glands, situated on top of the kidneys, secrete Stress hormones, Adrenaline, and Cortisol into the bloodstream. These then trigger Fight, Flight, or Freeze modes of response to help us cope and react. Generally, the two hormones speed up heart rate, sweat secretion, and breathing. They also cause the body to draw the blood from the extremities to the torso/abdomen, where it’s needed the most. We can run faster from danger, fight back, or freeze to play dead. These modes of reaction are mutual to all living creatures.
Now, in the CNS, the Brain, there is also a rush of biochemicals. The limbic system, our most ancient part of the brain, sends more Dopamine to the forebrain. Dopamine is metabolized at this location into epinephrine that activates many brain functions, including our motor system. So, the CNS is sped up by Epinephrine (ie. Adrenaline, only named differently). This makes us more hyper, and we experience difficulty falling asleep and becoming vigilant. The Epinephrine’s most likely use is to speed up thinking, to scan memory for similar, previous experiences, or to problem-solve anew.
We can try to manage stress through the PNS, specifically the Parasympathetic nervous system. The autonomic system (autonomic, meaning involuntary, automatic responses of the nervous system) in the PNS is divided into two modes of activity: The Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic.
The Sympathetic system (described above) gets into action at times of stress. Functions essential to immediate survival are prioritized and inessential functions (hunger, sex drive, etc.) are lowered.
The Parasympathetic nervous system keeps us at a normal, day-to-day activity; this is where we want to be as often as we can.
What can we do to get back to the parasympathetic mode?
Western science learned from the East that yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and the like can help the body and mind return to the parasympathetic.
In Hatha Yoga, we learn that deep abdominal breathing starts by extending the belly, breathing into it, then continuing to fill up with air through the middle and upper chest up to the chin; and then exhaling by pushing in the stomach first and then out from the upper chest. This way of breathing actually returns the nervous system back to the parasympathetic mode. I find that it’s best to actually count, saying: 1, 2 into the belly; 3, 4 into middle chest; 5, 6 to upper chest (upping the numbers as we progress).
Hatha yoga involves movements where any stretching involves inhalation and any folding back in involves exhalation. At times of stress, just practicing deep breathing can be enough to help ourselves.
By breathing from the stomach first we lower the diaphragm, this expands the ribcage and our lungs fill up with more oxygen. The lungs, then, send more oxygen to the heart. From there both the Brain & Spinal Cord (CNS) and the body (PNS) are receiving the extra, well-needed oxygen to calm down.
It is very difficult during times of stress to remember this, rather, simple action. One needs to develop his or her personal cue to remember to use it. And eventually, it will start working. Participating in Yoga, QuiGong, and other similar practices can reinforce the discipline as well as provide many more benefits.
Find what works for you
As I was trained in Hatha Yoga more than 50 years ago, in Israel, I must admit that I cannot recommend one class or another out of the Westernized or traditional forms of yoga available today. In addition to yoga, Dance Movement Therapy, other creative arts therapies, or activities, and traditional psychotherapy/counseling can be helpful.
I hope that you can find the one suitable for you.
Speaking of creativity, when Anxiety/Stress keeps us up at night, creative hobbies/activities can be as helpful as deep breathing. Insomnia, wakefulness, hyper state of the brain can have us rehashing what is bothering us. Creative activities can change the course of our thoughts. We don’t have to create masterpieces to feel the benefit of creative activities. Cooking, gardening, any form of activity will take us into planning, rather than repeating, spinning the same worries over and over. This creative engagement brings relief and, with it Sleep. I call it getting from the Destructive to the Constructive.
For people who insist that they are not creative, I suggest going from De-constructing to Re-constructing. E.g., to think about the book you’ve just read, or the movie you watched, analyze them and form your own take of the experience.
Methods of managing stress can be completely unique to you, get creative!