Very often the terms “stress” and “anxiety” are used interchangeably and we generally understand them to have the same meanings in our everyday language. However the truth of the matter is that Stress and Anxiety are in fact not the same and we need to understand the differences before we attempt to deal with them.
Stress is a normal reaction to a situation that is perceived to be challenging or poses a threat or even opportunities. The important factor here is that stress is our own personal reaction to an event rather than the event itself which causes the stress.
Good and Bad Stress
Stress is not always a bad thing in our lives. Good stress (known as Eustress) occurs when our level of stress is high enough to motivate us in order to engage with a challenge and to achieve our goals. Essentially this stress helps us rise to the challenge and to perform at our best. When this eustress becomes too great though, we start to enter into the bad stress known as Distress. This negative stress occurs when our levels of stress are either too high, or too low and our mind and body begin to respond negatively to the stressors. These reactions could include demotivation, feeling overwhelmed, getting sick, reaching “burn-out” etc.
Anxiety on the other hand is a feeling of fear, unease or worry, often related to situations that are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable. Anxiety is a future-oriented mood in which a person anticipates an attempt (normally viewed as being unsuccessful) to cope or manage the upcoming negative event. Anxiety is therefore prolonged stress that continues after the stressor is gone and becomes future-orientated towards another upcoming event. In comparison, stress is caused by an immediate, existing stress causing factor.
Normal, abnormal and “normal”
Stress is a normal part of our every day life, we cannot avoid it and it plays an important role in motivating us to achieve goals and in general getting through each day safely. Normal stress is related to our survival as we experience some degree of stress whenever our body perceives a threat. This could be from another person or event outside of ourselves which we find threatening (robbery, fights, getting in trouble), or even simply being hungry or thirsty. The normal stress that we experience can cause us to enter into out fight/flight/freeze response to a situation, which may stem from a physical, emotional or environmental threat.
Abnormal stress begins to rear it’s head when our normal stress comes prolonged. When this stress continues after the immediate threat or cause has been dealt with we enter into the realm of anxiety as we become worried or fearful of future events. These fears can further develop into even greater irrational fears which then become our phobias and become less and less controllable. As this anxiety continues it will likely begin to interfere in our daily lives or activities, and as this continues it is possibly and quite likely that we can adopt a negative outlook on life or situations. A “doomsday’ outlook can be the beginnings of the commonly associated depression.
We often perceive our stress or anxiety to be “normal” because we have experienced it that way for so
long. Our familiarity with worries, fears and anxiety does not make it normal. It only makes it regular and common for ourselves. It is important to remember that expressions such as “it’s just the way I am” or “it’s the way it always is” or even “this is just how I work” are not good enough justifications to try and normalise your anxiety levels. Furthermore, as we “normalise” our anxiety we begin to normalise it for our immediate support group (family) too and thus all members will begin to accept these levels of stress, worry and anxiety as “normal”.
Where anxiety comes from
There is generally much debate around the role of nature vs nurture in our development. The important aspect to keep in mind is that both nature and nurture play crucial roles in our development and the individuals that we will or have developed into.
Nature refers to our biological or genetic components. This aspect is out of our control and is predetermined before the foetus is even formed yet. The reason for this is due to the fact that our genes and DNA are set and dependent on the pairing of an egg and a sperm cell which contain the DNA components that will form our own unique DNA. Just like our sex, this is determined long before we even start looking human.
Nurture on the other hand refers to our environment, which includes the various individuals who contribute to our lives. The challenging aspect of this Nurture component is that it is comprised of many variables, (people and other factors) however, compared to the Nature component discussed previously the environment is far more controllable. Our environments can be changed and be altered to best suit us which make this aspect the greatest variable in terms of our development. It similarly suggests that our environment is the most significant factor in determining whether we cross the threshold into the clinical diagnoses of behaviour such as anxiety.
Cause and Effect
This graph shows some examples of the role that Nature and Nurture play in our lives. This highlights the fact that we have a lot more control over our lives than what we often perceive. Furthermore, this emphasises the role that a parent plays in a child’s life as we consider the cause and effect relationship between parent and child and the environment which is created between them.
Some Cause and Effect considerations are:
Avoidance - if we avoid facing our fears, or dealing with our stress effectively, we will be breeding anxiety. In order to avoid developing chronic stress and anxious tendencies we first need to be effective at dealing with our own stress. This positive behaviour will then naturally be modelled for your children as they adopt your behaviour, habits and tendencies as their own. Be a role model for them, and be very cautious not to place your own stress and anxiety onto your own children.
Overprotective - Being over protective, rushing in to help your child , stepping in on their behalf is often done because it is easier to deal with situations that way. We are able to reduce a child’s immediate or short term distress by stepping in, however the long-term effects of this are that your children will develop a reliance or dependance on your intervention and will not learn how to deal with challenges on their own. We need to bear in mind that if we start “protecting’ our children from a very young age, it becomes mo
re and more difficult for us as parents to firstly realise the long-term impact we are having on them, and secondly for us to actually step back. We develop overprotective habits which then become part of our daily lives. Your children will also find it more and more difficult to cope with challenges, the longer they have you stepping in to take control. Children need to learn from their own success and failures, if we adopt their failures as your own they will never learn.
It’s in our family - Anxiety runs in families. Firstly there may be a genetic component (Nature), but more
importantly, we learn by watching our parents. Your children will adopt your behaviour as your own.
Verbal transmission - Be aware of how you handle situation and your general day-to-day language and vocabulary that you use. Your tone of voice, telephone conversations, face to face conversations and discussions with a spouse or partner will all subtly inform your children how to handle life. Just hearing of a threat indirectly can lead to a child developing certain fears.
How to deal with anxiety
Anxiety is very real for the person experiencing it, even if you don't perceive the fear or threat to be real or significant. Anxiety is very often irrational and it is crucial that you are sensitive to this.
As a parent take responsibility to acknowledge and accept the role that you are playing in your child’s stress levels and anxiety. Be cautious to blame environments, people or problems outside of home as a child will most often “practice” what they learn at home in these other environments, school included.
Take the necessary action to help address the anxiety where you can, therefore start with yourself as an individual before trying to address it in your child. Make the necessary changes and adjustments in yourself and your home in general before focusing on your child as an isolated individual.
Medication - This is often a default reaction to a problem these days. The problem with medication is that is can often mask the causes of stress and anxiety in our lives. It can also have other negative side effects including changes in appetite, attitude, personality etc. Be cautious when turning to medication, and if this is a necessary option, ensure that this occurs in conjunction with other interventions. Medication should (most often) be used to help an individual move into a more positive frame of mind where they can then make the necessary cognitive and behavioural changes necessary. Medication can assist in opening the door for change, but should not be the only intervention and should be viewed as a short term intervention where possible.
Therapy - Therapeutic interventions can be very effective in helping children, parents and families make the necessary changes to help deal with stress and anxiety 9n addition to many other challenges). There are many therapeutic option available and it is crucial that you find the best fit for the individual and the challenge they face. When it comes to treating anxiety it is suggested that a more practical therapeutic approach is taken rather then the more traditional “talk therapy”. The reason for this is because an individual will need to change their habits and behaviour and just talking about it will not be sufficient, there needs to be a significant practice component that will allow for some trial and error and in order to begin making changes with the necessary guidance and support.
Stress reduction techniques - There are many other techniques that can be effective in helping to reduce stress and anxiety levels. These include visualisations, meditation, various breathing techniques, practicing “letting go” and focusing on others, as well as various coping skills such as time management, prioritising and gaol setting.
Home adjustment - Making changes at home can have the greatest impact on a child’s stress levels. Taking time to assess relationships and dynamics at home, the discipline structures and general outlooks and interactions should be the starting point of any intervention.
Expectation adjustments - Our expectations of our children and ourselves can very often be a primary contributor to our stress levels. Take some time to assess your expectations of your children and adjust them accordingly. Remember that your children are not you and they are not each other. Each of us is a unique individual and our expectations of others should be in line with their abilities and interests.
Team effort - Taking the responsibility to implement the necessary changes at home, and as an individual can be a daunting process, however you do not have to do it alone. Working with the school and your support network will make the whole process easier and more effective. Share your interventions at home with the school so that your child’s teachers can assist in reinforcing the changes (be careful not to place this responsibility on the teacher or the school). Similarity with friends and family, let them know what you are doing and what you need them to do to aid the process.
Your control is limited
You can only do so much as a parent and as an individual. Be aware of where your control ends and where a problem becomes another persons (your child’s) responsibility. Be accountable for what you can and teach your children to take responsibility for the rest. Remember that there is no quick fix and the interventions that you implement are a process and it may take time for you to notice the difference, but stick it out, it will be worth it.