How Stress Becomes Fear and Anxiety

When I was still subject to abuse, and while first starting on my journey of recovery I suffered from anxiety and panic attacks fairly regularly. A few years in though, I am far more capable of managing my emotions. When I feel the tension build or notice I am responding from redundant behavioral patterns, I take a step back. I meditate, make sure I eat right, go for extra walks, analyse what is bothering me, and take action about that. Some days are easier than others, but in general I can keep myself from really losing myself in an anxiety attack.

Recently though, I was under a lot of stress. I was moving house, so the stress could not be ignored, postponed or otherwise mitigated – it just WAS. Steep deadlines, lots of financial stress and just plain old hard work… it was all part of the deal. I felt like I was losing my mind! I was weeping (like really, crying just does not cover it), I was doubting my ability, I was losing sleep, my appetite (which is a freaking first) and felt like I was going to be sick (for days).

The learning and understanding that I gained in the last years of healing and recovery, helped me to gain a deeper understanding of what was really going on. It helped me reach out to fellow survivors and understand the chaos, even as it was happening. That understanding then made it easier to see the emotional upheaval apart from the stress of what was happening in my life. As a result I was able to power through the “hard work” part of the stress more effectively.

The Trigger of Imbalance

While freaking out at one of my sisters of choice (thanks for letting me vent and be crazy for a bit, darling! ♥), she told me this:

“Yes, you are off balance because things are changing. And it feels like when we were kids
and our parents kept us off balance. But you can’t take a step without changing your balance. We just have a fear of it because we were subjected to
our balance being unnecessarily messed up.”

That observation really helped my greater understanding. Being off balance is never nice I guess, but for survivors it is not just unpleasant… it is a trigger. All our abusers, no matter our relationships to them, kept us in a constant state of imbalance, insecurity and stress. We never knew what was coming, we never knew where we stood, and we were constantly anxious because of it.

It makes sense than that, when life becomes stressful, we immediately default to the feeling of stress and panic we experienced while subject to the abuse. This is the seed of anxiety and possibly even an anxiety attack.

Regret, Worry & Fear

I know that there is a big difference between experiencing anxiety and having an anxiety attack, and even those can vary in intensity. As a generalization though, we can tally all that anxious energy on the fear pile.

Fear can move in different directions. When we fear our past, we call it regret. When we fear our future, we call it worry. When we feel anxious though, all those distinctions go out of the window. We are just left with a big ball of fear in our bodies, and more often than not we cannot tell where it is coming from or what it is aimed at.

A major problem we face when feeling anxiety or having an anxiety attack is not just that we cannot understand where the fear is originated, we also can no longer differentiate between fake threads and real ones. People who are prone to anxiety, are less able to see differentiate between various stresses and emotional experiences. So the emotional triggers that I spoke of earlier, are going to blend in with whatever is going on in your life now, whether they are an actual thread or not.

It all comes down to the brain’s plasticity, or its ability to change and reorganize itself by forming new connections. These inherent changes in the brain dictate how a person responds to stimuli, and researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that people diagnosed with anxiety are less likely to be able to differentiate neutral or “safe” stimuli from threatening ones.
The scientists found that those with anxiety experienced lasting plasticity long after an emotional experience (aka a “stimulus”) ended. This means the brain was unable to distinguish new, irrelevant situations from something that’s familiar or non-threatening, resulting in anxiety. In other words, anxious individuals tend to overgeneralize emotional experiences, whether they are threatening or not.
(From: People With Anxiety Perceive The World In A Fundamentally Different Way by Lindsay Holmes, Deputy Healthy Living Editor, The Huffington Post)

So, being reminded of the emotional state we experienced while in the abusive situation is going to trigger our brains to respond in the same way they would have then. It is like an emotional flashback (in fact, that is exactly what it is) and suddenly you feel like you want to fight, freeze or flee the situation.

Life or Death… All… The… Time!

Being triggered to make the right choices to safe your life when say your caveman ancestor stepped on a tiger’s tail… that will have been useful. And it still has its benefits in our modern society too, even if we don’t come across too many tiger tails. Where survivors get into trouble is when this response is triggered far too easily and often. On top of that, our anxious brains seem to only have an on/off switch. That means that we may experience pretty much every anxious thought as a matter of life and death. Every time we are triggered emotionally, we are flung into a perceived life or death experience, and these emotional flashbacks are fairly common (although, I promise they do get less frequent and intense as you move along your healing journey). It is exhausting!

I will be honest that I really did feel that the stress of packing made me feel like I was facing the end of my world.

I felt stuck, alone and like my life was about to end. Of course I started weeping, of course I lost my appetite, of course I couldn’t sleep!

Once it started making sense at a rational level, I could then coax myself out of the quicksand pit and get back to living life (as far as life is lived mid move, but you catch my drift).

Getting Unstuck

I already mentioned a few things I do to manage anxiety at the start of this article, but they are so important that I am going to mention them again.

  • Eat good meals – Get yourself into the kitchen and make yourself some well-balanced meals. Giving your body the nutrients it needs to make you feel better, is going to go a long way. Besides, cooking can be a great way to sneak in some meditation without meditating too!
  • Meditate (or take some time out) – Have you ever heard the quote ‘Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed’. It is accredited to Saint Francis de Sales, and he has a point. Taking a step back, a time out from life and stress is important. It can really help you keep your anxiety in check. There are different ways to meditate, some that don’t even require meditation if that is not your cup of tea. Do some yoga, listen to some music… just find a place and activity where all you really have to do is breath.
Here are some more suggestions on dealing with anxiety:
  • Get moving – Take a walk, go for a run… get your body moving! Some fresh air (if you can get it) and exercise are a great way to help your brain snap out of it.
  • Reach out to a friend – Don’t suffer it alone. I reached out to my sister of choice, and talking to her helped so much. So get on the phone, on Skype or just go over to their home (it all comes down to where you live).
  • Have a laugh – Load up Netflix with your favorite comedy, find some funny memes to laugh at, or ask your friend to tell you their latest joke. Getting yourself laughing is the bound to flood your brain with happy chemicals (just like the exercise does) and that may be enough to snap out of the life or death state.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has some more tips on dealing with anxiety on their website. If you suffer full on anxiety attacks, you may be interested to follow the development of The Calming Stone, which sounds like a very interesting project to me.

Don’t Live in Fear of Fear

Most importantly though, when dealing with anxiety, is not to get anxious about it. I know that can be hard, because an anxiety attack can be right around the corner. In fact, even while writing this article I experienced quite a lot of anxiety, just from thinking about anxiety…

So, when I felt the anxiety pile up I just confided in my partner. I told him I how I was feeling. I asked him to read the drafted article and I just disappeared in his arms to have a bit of a cry. Guess what? The world did not end!

Take a deep breath, my friend. This is NOT the end of the world!

we love to read your comments below



Having gained experience while working for a variety of European non-profits, I am proud to now work with SwanWaters. My connection with the website is not only professional. I am glad to tap into my personal experiences to help those who are living in toxic relationships whether with parents, partners or in their professional life. We need to make the world more aware of the devastating effects of emotional abuse and help more people on their way to heal and thrive.

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When feeling anxiety we can't understand where the fear is originated, or differentiate between fake and real threads. Everything becomes life or death

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  1. Profile photo of scapechi

    September 8, 2016 at 1:21 am

    Oh this is so very true! I call it reverting to type, as it was a coping method to dealing with the knocks of life.
    The hardest thing for me is and was, asking for help when I need it. It’s a fear we have, that the other person will say no. We have a huge hope that they will say yes, and when they do, it’s not only a relief but a surprise.

    • Profile photo of Monkey

      September 12, 2016 at 10:20 am

      YES! Especially that simultaneous relief and surprise!


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