Stress: the stretch between where you are right now and where you want to be. It is a perception filled with negativity. It takes you away from being in the moment and feeling content. There is a continuous production of cortisol and adrenaline undermining your physical strength and mental balance. Stress feeds of stress and has a tendency to build up.
Fear: the immediate reaction to an identifiable threat in the moment. Peak production of adrenaline, getting the body ready for flight or fight. The physical reactions are the heartrate going up, digestive systems stopping and changes in the breathing. These will all stop as soon as the danger has gone. The fear signal is activated through the amygdala, the non-thinking pickup centre for stress signals. The amygdala gets more on edge when it receives more stress signals. When you are stressed, your amygdala will be on the alert and pickup more signals as danger as when you are relaxed. The more stressed, the more fear.
Anxiety: the reaction to thoughts and images about what could happen. It is not connected to danger in the moment but an emotional reaction to imaginative danger in the distance or the future. ‘What if’ and ‘I hope they are all right’ are anxiety evoking ways of thinking and are activated through the cortex (the thinking brain). The fear experience will be remembered in the cortex. The more fearful experiences, the more memories of dangerous situations, the more food for anxiety. Anxiety creates the same physical responses as fear.
Panic attack: an out of control experience caused by an extreme amount of adrenaline. This leads to a very strong physical response (sweaty hands, hard racing, nausea), a totally paralysed brain function (not able to think at all) and feeling extremely uncomfortable and utterly powerless. This is a totally exhausting experience. Sufferers mentioned afterwards, they felt like they had run a marathon. A panic attack is caused by a built-up of stress, fear and anxiety. As the experience is so uncomfortable, it usually feeds the anxiety around the next panic attack.
Panic disorder: when the fear for another panic attack takes over life and prevents you from living a normal life. Sufferers are keen to avoid certain situations, they refuse meeting people, often end up not leaving the house and ultimately turning into a reclusive.
What about stress?
Stress is a choice. You might think it is part of life, but it isn’t it. You made it part of your life because you don’t know how to deal with it. It seems to be the easy option to just get on with it. ‘Everybody suffers from it’. Sooner or later it will catch up with you. Physically and/or mentally. Best way forward: to de-stress and allow the levels of stress hormones to come down to zero.
What about fear?
Fear is most of the time a healthy emotion. It protects us from danger. After the event that caused the fear (say an encounter with a dangerous looking dog) we calm down and move on. Fear is ignited in the amygdala and if the amygdala is on heightened alert we will experience a higher number of fearful incidents. Best way forward: to stop the drama and overthinking and see fear in the natural context.
What about anxiety?
Anxiety is dominated by cognitive functionality. Thinking, rethinking, overthinking and anticipation of the worst scenarios. The only positive thing about anxiety is that it invites to think about ‘worst’ outcomes and allows you to prepare. Just in case. But even then, it is often a waste of energy. Best way forward: learn to stop overthinking (meditation is known for that) and learn to let go.
What about panic attacks?
Panic attacks are highly uncomfortable. But………. they are not dangerous. No one has ever died from a panic attack. It passes. Usually lasts between 5 and 25 minutes. Feels horrible, absolutely awful, but that is all there is to it. Best way forward: flood the sensations, stick with it and beat it by going through it.
What about a panic disorder?
A panic disorder can be sorted through facing each panic attack as described above, combined with a number of coaching sessions for anxiety. The good news is that a panic disorder is ‘the easiest mental health issue to treat and to leave behind’. This is Dr Harry Barry, a specialist consultant in anxiety and panic disorders.