09 March 2004

Managing anxiety, stress and tension

All of us experience anxiety, stress or tension at some or other stage in our lives. If we do not cope with it immediately and deliberately it might overwhelm us and immobilise us for the tasks that we have to perform. It forms the cornerstone of all forms of dis-ease.

All of us experience anxiety, stress or tension at some or other stage in our lives. If we do not cope with it immediately and deliberately it might overwhelm us and immobilise us for the tasks that we have to perform. It forms the cornerstone of all forms of dis-ease.

All these definitions have in common the fact that individuals experience excessive uneasiness and that they worry as a result of perceived (excessive or dangerous) demands that are made on them on an interpersonal level. The anxiety, worry or tenseness could result in the impairment of social, occupational, physical and other important areas of functioning. One could also say that individuals experience an excessive sensitivity for other's opinions, attitudes and demands.


  • Getting tired very easily
  • Muscle tension
  • Palpitations - a pounding heart or an accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating (cold sweat) or hot flushes
  • Shortness of breath, a feeling of being choked or a smothering sensation with pain in the chest
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling numb or experiencing tingling sensations in certain parts of the body
  • Experiencing a dry mouth and the urge to swallow repeatedly
  • Diarrhoea
  • Impotence or an excessive need for sex
  • Asthma
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
  • Feeling depressed and downhearted at times
  • Feeling detached from oneself
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Intense apprehension, fearfulness, or terror, often associated with feelings of impending doom
  • Difficulty concentrating on a specific task or experiencing the mind going blank (clouding of consciousness)
  • Forgetfulness, resulting from preoccupation with the problem
  • Restlessness, feeling keyed up or on edge
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Short tempered
  • Withdrawal from interpersonal interaction
  • Excessive smoking, sleeping and/or drinking
  • Sleep disturbances (finding it difficult to fall asleep or experiencing nightmares, sleeping excessively or restless sleep - waking up tired)
  • Not feeling hungry or eating excessively
  • Slow psychomotor co-ordination
  • How to cope with stress

  • Your subjective perception could be different:
    As I have mentioned, anxiety or stress implies an over-sensitivity to other's opinions, attitudes and demands. It is the meaning that you attach to significant other people's opinions, attitudes and demands that brings about the tension. This being the case, then surely communication between the concerned parties should alleviate the matter. It sounds easy enough but we all have reservations about communicating about matters of a personal nature. We always think: 'What will he think of me if I told him this problem that I experience', or ' She would think I am stupid to have such a problem,' or 'Why can't I just cope with problems like anybody else?' or 'I am sure I am the only one with such a problem, nobody will understand me.' Most emotional problems are related to the perceptions and expectations we have of significant other people. The questions above confirm this view. One could thus also say that in one's (subjective) definition of the problem lies the solution to it as well!
  • Keep fit:
    To be able to perceive and handle problems effectively, one must also be as physically fit as possible. Tiredness can negatively influence the perception of, definition of and possible solution of a problem. The problem may then be perceived as overwhelming and insoluble.
  • Your definition of the problem could be different:
    The solution to a problem lies in its meaning, perception and definition. If you define a problem as overwhelming, it will appear insoluble. Furthermore, if you think about a problem on your own, you will only have one point of view. In the example earlier, Peter's friend introduced a different perspective and by implication a (different) solution to the problem. When a person is gets ill in the West, they say he must have a rest. He is visited by a few people and visits are socially controlled. In the East, when a person gets ill, his bed is placed in the living room. The sick person is the centre of attention and he is visited by many family members and friends. If visitors stayed away, it would be seen as uncivil and as a lack of sympathy. In this way relationships are confirmed. In the West relationships very often become severed when a person becomes ill and the sick person is "forgotten" at his/her office until he/she returns. He/she does not experience being missed by colleagues and friends.
  • Begin to communicate about the problem:
    So, if you find it difficult to talk to someone about your problems or negative experiences, find a psychologist or a good friend and start to practise talking to him/her first. Maybe that will give you enough courage to talk to others as well. By sharing a problem and feeling understood, the impact of a problem is alleviated. There is a saying: "Nature is explained but people are understood." There is no need for you to ever explain your behaviour if you feel you have done the best you can. We only need to understand each other.
  • Take a tranquilliser for stress situations:
    Very often people ask whether or not it may be simpler to take a tranquilliser to alleviate the anxiety or tension. There are times when tranquillisers may come in handy on a short-term basis. For example when a loved one dies and you find it difficult to cope with the emotional impact of the event or if you are the bridegroom who has to make a speech at your wedding and you suffer from stage fright, tranquillisers could help you cope with a temporary tense situation. (The bridegroom might however pay for it in another way later on that evening - much to his embarrassment! Tranquillisers and sex do not really work together.)

  • Learn to ride the wave of emotion:
    But can you carry on taking the medication forever? Would it not be better to learn how to surf, so that you can ride the waves of emotion when they come? For this reason it is important to talk to as many people as possible about your experiences, especially to experts. If you bottle feelings up, you are 'freezing' the emotional wave and the body is kept in a state of readiness, like a horse that is ready to race. The adrenalin is still pumping and the heart rate is still high to keep you in that state of readiness. Also many of the corresponding symptoms that were mentioned earlier, still prevail. Obviously the body cannot be kept in a state of readiness indefinitely and something must give in. Usually it is the heart which works the hardest and is the most vulnerable. So, does it pay to bottle up (and freeze emotions)? Definitely not. - Dr Jan van Leeuwen (Clinical and Counselling Psychologist)

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