The Goods

Stressed or anxious? A clinical psychologist on what causes those nervous feelings

And how to help manage your anxiety with mental exercises and self-understanding

And how to help manage your anxiety with mental exercises and self-understanding

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Although we may all experience stress from time to time, it can be hard to recognize the difference between stress and a mental health condition that can be treated, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And according to Statistics Canada, 1 in 5 Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. So clinical psychologist Dr. Vivien Lee from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health stopped by The Goods to discuss the signs and symptoms of anxiety and how to cope.

What causes the brain and body to display symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety is a normal emotion. Just like sadness, happiness and anger, anxiety is telling us something. Here's a little background on where anxiety comes from: The response our body goes through is called the fight, flight or freeze response. This is a reaction we all have as humans and animals too. It's about survival. Imagine yourself going for a walk alone on a nice day, and then you hear a loud sound and see a large bear 10 feet away. You would have a racing heart, your breathing would get faster, and lots of other things start happening physically. Emotionally we feel fear and anxiety because of the threat of the bear. It's hard to focus on anything else around us. A parade could go by and we wouldn't notice because we are focused on the bear and the danger it presents to us.

The amygdala is a tiny part of our brain that reacts to the threat. This is our fear processing center. It detects the threat and demands that the body deals with it. When the amygdala sends off that warning, adrenaline is released, and cortisol, our stress hormone, is released, priming our body for fight or flight. This developed in evolution. The prefrontal cortex contributes to this.

Your heart rate can go up, your muscles will tense up so that you can get away effectively, and your breathing might quicken so that your body can get all the oxygen it needs to deal with the threat. Emotionally, you might feel panicked, and you're not going to easily relax. If the bear loses interest and wanders away, the threat is gone, but it takes a while for our bodies to calm down. We are still thinking about the threat, and anxiety is the emotional part of this reaction.

How anxiety differs from stress

Stress is a change that happens that we need to adapt to. It might be a physical change, or a change in our lives like getting married. Stress happens to everyone. We may feel anxiety about it, but if it lingers and impairs us, that can be a big sign that something needs to be formally addressed. We develop anxiety when we have trouble coming down from fight or flight.

Sometimes anxiety can be a good thing

Anxiety can actually serve as a valuable signal, warning you that trouble is coming. Anxious feelings can warn you of a potential danger. Many people find it helpful to take a moment and recognize the source of the anxiety, and once it is addressed, the actual anxiety itself may be relieved because it has accomplished its mission. Anxiety also has the potential to be motivating at times, encouraging you to prepare and try to focus, and keeping you from being too comfortable and complacent.

How to maintain anxiety at a healthy level

There are many things you can do to cope with anxiety. Ideally, it can be helpful to try to identify the problem causing you anxiety and then develop an action plan to deal with it. You don't need to live the rest of your life feeling like you don't have control.

Deep breathing and visualization techniques are great for reducing anxiety. Many people try grounding exercises. When you're anxious, your thoughts are racing with "what ifs," and you're not living in the present. But you can use your senses to help bring you back to the present. Paying attention to what you see, smell and hear can really help ease symptoms of anxiety. Try looking around you and name three things you can see, three things you can hear, three things you can smell, etc. to bring you back to the present.

Scheduling time to decompress and practice self care, including eating right and getting enough sleep, can also work wonders for people's anxiety levels. Sometimes a simple lifestyle change is all it takes. Medication might be a helpful option in the short term if you're still having trouble living with your anxiety, so talk to your doctor about possible options.

Deep breathing technique

This is one of Dr. Lee's favourite techniques for relieving anxiety. When we're anxious, we often take deep breaths with our chests while moving our shoulders. But when you're watching a baby or pet sleep, you only see their belly move with their breath. That's because breathing from the belly is the most relaxing way to get the most oxygen. Here's how to gain control of your breath:

1. First, imagine breathing slowly with your belly.

2. Lean back. Breath in for four counts.

3. Pause, and breathe out for four counts.

4. Repeat for several breaths, keeping an eye on your shoulders and breathing from your belly for several minutes.

Practice this exercise for 20 breaths when you're already feeling relaxed so that you'll be able to do it when you're under stress.