When I was a child, our Elementary school occasionally showed “safety films.” Jiminy Cricket, Disney’s character of conscience, would dance around and sing little jingles meant to teach children about home and community safety. Although children’s safety might have been the goal, the films had a very different impact on my anxious and rather creative young mind.
I vividly remember one film shown to 1st graders where Jiminy discussed the dangers of household cleaning chemicals. As he sang, cartoon pictures of cleaning agents kept under the kitchen sink appeared on the screen. As the jingle started I began to worry that somehow, sometime, somewhere, I might have ingested one of those chemicals. By the time the song concluded I was absolutely positive I had been drinking detergent that very morning. I threw up right there on my little desk and my mother was called to take me home.
Some of you reading this article can’t imagine what I am talking about. Others are chuckling because you are saying, “I’ve totally done that same thing.” You know what it’s like to go to a doctor visit with one illness, only to leave convinced you have several more. When my doctor asks “Do your ears hurt?” I always answer, “They do now!” I once started a doctor visit by simply stating, “Don’t start asking me if random things hurt, because once you ask me, they will!”
As a teacher, parent, and friend, I have found that what I learned growing up anxious (with a tendency toward obsessiveness), has become an asset. The amount of time I spend with individuals who are struggling with anxiety, stress, and depression, is only surpassed (and just barely) by those who have questions about dating, courtship, and marriage.
Stress vs Anxiety
To really understand stress and anxiety, we need a clear definition of these emotions and to understand the difference between them. I have found these definitions the most beneficial:
Stress, is mental, emotional, or physical pressure or tension that comes from a challenging or strenuous situation.
Anxiety, is to obsessively worry or fear that the outcome to a given situation, or life generally, will be negative.
Using these definitions, we see stress as an ever-present reality that we can learn to manage. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a non-beneficial emotion or mental state that we should seek to diminish or eliminate. Increasing our understanding of stress and anxiety is an important precursor to formulating plans to manage and overcome them. Here are four important knowledge points to remember.
First: Stress is a natural, and planned for, part of this life.
Each life has some degree of pressure or tension that changes with time and circumstance. Realizing that stress is a normal and natural part of life is both comforting and liberating. Without this knowledge, stress can quickly turn into the negative emotion of anxiety.
Second: Stress is not necessarily bad, but anxiety is.
Stress is often the result of goal seeking behaviors and the instrument of progress. We can see in the natural world around us that the results of tension or pressure are often beneficial. For example, the tension in a strung bow allows the arrow to take flight. The tension of the string keeps the kite in the air. The constant pull of gravity
causes our muscles to be continually strengthened and protects us from atrophy.
Anxiety is rooted in fear and doubt. It is the projection of “worst case” scenarios on our future. Unlike the potential benefits of normal stresses, anxiety paralyzes our drives and desires and impedes our progress and happiness.
Third: We all handle stress and anxiety differently. For some it is more of a challenge than for others.
Each person has mental and emotional mechanisms for handling stress that are a combination of anatomy and experience. These mechanisms are very much like the radiators in gasoline automobiles. The function of a radiator is to keep the engine components cool during operation. I like this analogy because it presupposes that normal operation necessarily involves some heat, some friction, and some tension, all of which have been planned and prepared for by the inclusion of a radiator.
I recently replaced the radiator in one of my vehicles. The parts supplier offered three options regarding the size and capability of my new radiator; light duty, regular duty, or heavy duty. Much like automobile radiators, not all “stress radiators,” are built alike, nor do they function equally well. Some individual’s stress mechanisms tend to be “light” duty. They successfully manage light amounts of stress, but function best when the tension and pressures of life are minimal. Others are more “regular” duty. They function under normal stresses very well, and can also manage extreme situations for a brief time. Still others have “heavy” duty stress mechanisms. These fortunate few can manage even the extreme stresses and tensions of life for extended periods without a breakdown.
Infrequently, a radiator will arrive at the supplier that has some fundamental flaws. Hoses were somehow crossed, channels were malformed, or perhaps it was damaged during shipping. For whatever reason, the radiator is unable to function properly without some additional adjusting or external help. This is also true with “stress radiators.” For some of us, it may take additional adjusting or external help for our stress mechanisms to function properly. For these individuals, the blessings of psychology and medication cannot be underestimated.
Four: There are ways to manage your feelings of stress and anxiety
Most importantly, there are things that will limit our stress and eliminate some of our anxiety. Regardless of the current capabilities of our stress mechanisms, there are methods and ideas that will actually improve our abilities in this area. We do not have to sit idly by while anxiety destroys our lives.
Scientists are frantically working to understand why there has been such an increase in reported anxiety during the past decade. As our understanding expands, our methods for dealing with this “Anxiety Epidemic” will improve and increase. The next two articles in this series will discuss specific methods and ideas for managing stress and eliminating anxiety.
Thanks for reading,