Stress and anxiety

Like any emotion, anxiety is a call to do, or stay clear of, something. In the right measure, anxiety is a good thing that keeps us on our toes, such as when we undertake something that is dangerous or challenging. It only becomes problematic, or dysfunctional, when the anxiety, or fear, that we experience becomes pervasive and out of proportion with what is going on around us. Brief, but recurrent, periods of intense anxiety are known as panic attacks. At a physical level, anxiety can be accompanied by symptoms such as sweating, palpitations and trembling. In an effort to relieve our anxiety, we can develop many different dysfunctional responses, such as obsessive and/or compulsive safety behaviours, phobias and social anxieties. For example, we may develop a fear of leaving the house or a compulsion to check that the doors are locked, the windows are closed and electric devices are unplugged several times before leaving. A combination of our natural sensitivity and repeated or excessive exposure to negative life events are often related to the development of many anxieties, interfering with our ability to realistically appraise threatening situations and our ability to control them. The words ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are often used interchangeably. However, it is probably more helpful to think of stress as being the result of excessive everyday pressure and challenges that, if ongoing, can lead to unhealthy levels of anxiety. The aim in psychotherapy is to identify the point at which a beneficial level of anxiety somehow began to be transformed into a pervasive fear, to bring understanding and context to its development, to help the person to find strategies to overcome their fear and, finally, to help the person to gain confidence that they can face everyday life without feeling unduly vulnerable.