Most of us in The West will have the luxury of dropping dead someday of a stress-related disease. That’s why it’s so urgent that we understand panic, anxiety and stress—and how to better manage it.

These are some of the symptoms of stress:

Emotional symptoms of stress include:

Becoming agitated, frustrated and moody
Feeling overwhelmed, as if you are losing control or need to take control
Having difficulty relaxing, having a busy mind
Feeling bad about yourself, self critical, feeling lonely, worthless or depressed
Avoiding others

Cognitive symptoms of stress include:

• Constant worrying
• Racing thoughts
• Forgetfulness and disorganisation
• Inability to focus
• Poor judgement
• Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side

Physical symptoms of stress include:

Lack of energy
Upset stomach, including diarrhoea and nausea
Aches, pains, and tense muscles
Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
Frequent colds and infections
Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
(and for panic, feeling as you cannot breathe and are having a heart attack)

Behavioural symptoms of stress include:

• Changes in appetite — under eating or eating too much
• Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
• Increased use of alcohol, drugs or cigarettes
• Nervous behaviour, such as nail biting, fidgeting and pacing

A stressor is anything in the outside world that knocks you out of balance.

If you’re a zebra and a lion has torn your stomach open and you still need to get away you’re facing a crisis, and the stress/panic response is what you do with your body at this crisis point.

For 99% of the species on this planet, stress is three minutes of screaming terror, after which either it’s over with or you’re over.

If you’re a human, though, you’ve got to expand the definition and experience of a stressor in a very important way.

We humans turn on the stress response with memories, with emotions, with thoughts, and we hold onto our stress, living in a threat or stress saturated system at worse. It’s as if we switch on a panicky reaction and forget to turn the switch off; then we believe this is how we lead our lives.

Do this regularly enough and you’re going to get the old brain part of you stuck in this system, and find stress depleting the dopamine in your brain. And what happens next? You get depressed.

In the new part of the brain the neurocircuitry atrophies. As a result, you make bad choices, (based on threat, panic, anxiety and stress) which you spend the rest of your life trying to put right.

You are more likely to get a stressed if you feel like you have no outlet for what’s happening, no control over your environment, no sense of safety or certainty in your life and you believe things will get worse.

Let’s look at the four areas that were outlined above: The emotional, physical, cognitive and the behavioural ways in which we live.

1. The emotional:

Often the reason why we are so stressed in that we’re still in the grip of painful and threatening experiences that we experienced years ago. Our unconscious has no concept of time, and when threatening or stressful situations were experienced when we were young the old part of brain sees them as happening now. We need to find ways to recognise, explore and discharge these painful and old memories that at are still there, and learn to relate to them in a different way

2. The physical:

To address the physical areas of stress in our life we can take part in as series of exercises that can help the stress that appears to build up in our bodies discharge. These can be practices that are as simple as a hot bath, relaxing music, taking time out for a walk in the countryside, to a longer walk or exercise at the gym. Yoga is particularly good for stressbusting as is slow belly breathing.

3. The cognitive:

Challenging out thinking around stressful ways of living out lives can be deeply beneficial. This might be about weighing your life up, making changes in your attitude, beliefs or ideas about life and how it is lived. This might include creating calming visualisations, creating a “serene place” in your mind, becoming more self compassionate, journaling your worries or re-relating to difficult and stressful people in your life.

4. The behavioural:

Making other changes in your life could lower your stress, such as changes in diet, nutritional changes, sleeping better, getting that long “to-do” list completed. Mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to learn how to develop more relaxation in your life and relate to yourself more compassionately (see tab on mindfulness).

Counselling can help you find ways to

  • Gain control of your life
  • Develop strategies around what needs to change
  • Create and sustain areas of safety in your life
  • Create and sustain breathing and other practices to proactively bring soothing and calm into your life
  • Express and discharge your thoughts and feelings of stress and anxiety
  • Challenge your belief that things cannot change
  • Address any history of threat in your life that has lead to panic