The Physical Impact of Mental Stress
Early in my career, a man in his 30’s came to me for counseling after spending the better part of a Saturday evening in the emergency room. He thought he had been having a heart attack.
“I had all of the typical symptoms that you read about. My heart was racing, I felt a pain in my chest, I had a hard time breathing. I thought I was going to die,” he told me of the experience. After an extensive round of testing and evaluation, the emergency room doctors told him that the symptoms that he was experiencing were not a heart attack, as he had feared, but a panic attack.
The diagnosis surprised him. Initially, he told me that he didn’t see himself as an “anxious” person. However, upon further reflection, we discovered that he was under a lot of stress. He and his wife just had a baby. His parents had recently moved away. He was up for a job promotion in the final rounds of intensely competitive interviews. The recent changes were taking a physical toll.
He was not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental illness in America and a common reason for visits to the ER.
If You Regularly Experience:
- Racing Thoughts
- Excessive Worry
- Difficulty Sleeping
- Physical Distress (Rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, muscle tightness, nausea, irritable bowels)
- Panic Attacks
- Obsessive Thinking
- Compulsive Behavior
- Heightened Self-Awareness in Social Settings
…You are likely suffering from anxiety. Anxiety can run in families and be a lifelong challenge that spills into all facets of life, from relationships and parenting, to the workplace. People often feel isolated in anxiety, however, anxiety disorders affect an estimated 40 million Americans each year (Anxiety and Depression Association of America).
The good news is that anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Here is what you can do RIGHT NOW to help keep the physical symptoms of anxiety at bay:
Take a Breath
Physical symptoms are one of the most common complaints when someone has anxiety. In fact, they are often the reason someone, like my client, initially seeks treatment. This physical response is actually evolutionarily adaptive. Our bodies prepare for “fight or flight.” As our heart rate rises, a burst of adrenaline is released into our bloodstream. Fingertips may feel tingly, muscles tense, and our breathing changes from deep and slow to shallow and quick. If you are actually in physical danger, these changes will prepare you to best protect yourself.
Unfortunately, your body doesn’t know the difference between physical dangers and mental stresses. In other words, it responds the same whether you are in a dark ally approached by a stranger with a gun or are safe in your living room thinking about an upcoming work or school assignment.
If you can change the physiological responses, the anxiety will decrease as well. One of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety is to activate a “relaxation response.” This is because our bodies can’t actively be in the “fight or flight” state and a relaxed state at the same time. If we can initiate a relaxed state, the physical symptoms of anxiety will follow suit.
One of the easiest and most effective ways of accomplishing this is through changing your breathing. Breathing is one of the most important physical functions our bodies perform. We do it about 20,000 times a day, yet we give it very little thought. Breathing correctly has been shown to facilitate healing in a number of conditions including chronic pain, asthma, digestive issues, depression, and anxiety.
- Take a slow breath in through the nose, breathing into and expanding your lower belly (for about 4 seconds)
- Hold your breath for 1 or 2 seconds
- Exhale slowly through the mouth (for about 4 seconds)
- Pause before taking another breath
- Repeat about 20 times and notice the physical changes as your body begins to enter a relaxed state.
You will get the most benefit from incorporating these breathing exercises when you are feeling relatively calm. If you take time to practice this skill when relaxed, you will be prepared to use it when you are feeling anxious. I love apps like breathe2relax. It reminds you to practice mindful breathing and walks you through diaphragmatic breathing exercises.
Back to my client
Along with our work in therapy sessions, I encouraged him to practice diaphragmatic breathing and other stress-reducing activities (like yoga, physical exercise, maintaining social connections, and engaging in “electronics breaks”) each day.
“Looking back, it makes sense why my body was responding the way it was,” my client said. “I was under a lot of stress.” By incorporating ways to physically calm the body, along with making behavioral changes and mental shifts, he was able to reduce his anxiety and get back to enjoying life again.
*Stories are provided to give depth and understanding to common and universal struggles. Personal or identifiable details have been altered, combined or changed to protect the confidentiality of clients and honor the therapeutic process.