As we have said in other articles, stress and anxiety are some of the great evils of our century and, although they are not the same, they are closely related. If stress is maintained over time, to the point of exhaustion, or anxiety feeds back and overtakes us, affecting our life, we can talk about stress or anxiety disorder. We have spoken with Toni Mateo, psychologist and anxiety specialist, so that he can give us the keys on how to understand and treat stress and anxiety in a comprehensive way.
As a psychologist, what do you understand by stress or anxiety?
Although they are terms that most of the times are usually used interchangeably and, at times, can be difficult to distinguish, stress and anxiety are two different concepts. It is true that they are usually linked and closely related, but it is convenient to differentiate them in order to fully understand what we may be suffering.
Stress is the activation that we suffer to face a demanding situation, a challenge or a danger. It can be an exam, a one-off workload, a business trip, or an encounter with a predator in the mountains. Our body kicks in to give a fight or flight response.
Instead, anxiety is a defense mechanism that is responsible for detecting and identifying those threats. It triggers different warning signs that allow us to take the necessary measures to face this imminent danger.
We could say that anxiety is activated first and then stress comes. The problem is when this becomes a wheel that picks up speed.
We live in a hectic world where anxiety and stress have become normalized to such an extent that they have even been attributed positive connotations. How can we learn to detect that something is not working properly in our body?
Stress and anxiety are positive, since those are mechanisms that have allowed us to adapt and survive as humans. This means that they have very specific functions and a very short “useful life”. Both imply a significant mobilization of resources and cannot be sustained over time. Therefore, when these responses remain longer than what is appropriate, they become exhausting for the person and, of course, they cease to be adaptive. This is when we talk about a stress disorder or an anxiety disorder.
An easy way to detect that these processes are becoming a thing is the general feeling of fatigue, special skin sensitivity and anger reactions. An anxiety disorder also involves general fear but also fear of specific things that, under normal conditions, should not cause that fear feeling. Of course, the most obvious signs will be on a physical level, such as bad sleep, rapid heartbeat, sweating, etc.
In other interviews you have mentioned that detecting and understanding anxiety is very complicate. What do you exactly mean?
An anxiety disorder carries some kind of worry. Difficult thoughts appear and often spin around on themselves, making it difficult to give them an easy way out. They take advantage of any minimal justification to keep going around, relating concepts that, in a proper mental state, we would surely discard quickly.
When anxiety becomes a disorder it makes you believe things that do not make much sense and makes you fear situations that hardly ever happen. Also, as the anxiety is future-oriented, there is no “real material” to work with as the situation hasn’t happened yet.
Do we pay too much attention to our thoughts and feelings?
For sure we do. We tend to identify excessively with everything that goes through our mind. This makes it difficult to discard ideas or thoughts, simply because they occurred to us. Sometimes we cling to an opinion or an impression without taking into account that opinions are variable, and if there is new information that complements the one you already had, it is normal and recommended to change your mind.
Both stress and anxiety are multifactorial, that is, they never have a single origin nor can they be faced from a single position. How should we deal with a state of stress or anxiety?
First of all, and I think it is the most fundamental thing, is to detect that you have entered into this “cycle”. It is necessary to accept that it is an altered state and that the decisions that are going to be taken under that influence, surely, are wrong or not very correct.
At the same time, also understand that these things can happen and that they are not dangerous. An anxiety disorder, or a state of stress, can be very unpleasant, but you cannot make the mistake of putting that label on them, since you will be aggravating the situation for sure.
Therefore, it must be clear that the first thing to do is to reduce that activation and the alert. It is at this very moment when you have to take a break and put in place all those resources that we have to calm down and relax. From simple breathing techniques to stretching or certain yoga postures.
Then, when everything is gone, it is time to rethink what has happened, what triggered the situation and find solution to avoid this experience in the future.
What advice would you give so that we can learn to think and live better?
Basically, you have to be demanding with what goes through your head, especially with those ideas that can damage our self-esteem. If you have to believe something negative about yourself, make sure that it has gone through a quality filter and that it is well justified. We tend to be our own worst critics and treat each other with little kindness and understanding.
If you are clear about this, train it and get used to developing critical thinking, along with guiding the situations that arise in your life to give them a solution. Sometimes a solution is simply not to intervene in something or just listen and give support.