B and K are both living at the upper end of the stress scale. Level 10 is as high as it gets there is no level 11. This is when you have to decide to go to the hospital or hope that someone takes you there.
The buildup of anxiety due to chronic stress can occur – over month or years, days or weeks and can culminate in a major panic attack. Now you are in the Red Zone. Levels 7, 8, and 9 are when you lose control of your coping behaviors. Level 5 was active coping that worked temporarily as you did manage the stress in most areas so that you had symptoms but were still making good decisions. What used to be termed ‘acting out; is now seen as symptomatic stress behavior- literally coping gone awry. This behavioral cycling from one coping behavior to another can also be seen as bipolar -like symptoms. Often there is a misdiagnosis if the professional sees the patient in this state. What does this have to do with anxiety and stress? The two examples below show extreme reactions and decisions based on the fear of being alone under stressful circumstance.
B was laid off in May of 2007 and she got busy job hunting as she took care of her twin teenagers alone. Their dad was in the military in Iraq now he is in Afghan territory or somewhere nearby because he can’t tell her his exact location. B has contacted friends and family from as far back as elementary school and has an enormous phone bill every month. She has also taken the girls out of school so she could home school them and have company during the day. But at night she is on the computer and phone for hours.
K is lucky to have a job that he hates. Over the last few months his relationship has dissolved. It really wasn’t good, ever. He has had chest pains that he quietly thought was the end, never going to the doctor because he didn’t want to know for sure. If he were dying he didn’t want to be alone and he became desperate to hold onto his girlfriend. He finally drove her away one “crazy drunk” Friday night when he proposed that they live together but not marry since he cannot afford a ring. He told her that he had actually thought about robbing a jewelry store but couldn’t decide which nearby town had the worst police response.
On the stress scale above a level 5 – which is coping with difficult situations hat resolves the stress – loss of control can spiral upwards so that no real resolution takes hold. Only temporary relief is experienced in the form of desperate measures.
If you live above a level 5 for extended periods of time you know that you can’t stop trying to cope even though nothing is working and you don’t remember what level 0 – 4 feels like. You are just cycling through – try this, try that. This is the false bi-polar behavior which is being triggered by trying to resolve high levels of anxiety.
Some of these coping mechanisms are efforts to resolve the chronic stress felt by the central nervous system (Cichetti & Tucker ’94) For example efforts are made to: sleep more sleep less, stay busy, stop thinking so much, write it all down etc. Some are social efforts (D. Schore , ’94) to create scenarios that will make it all better – fall in love, find the right job, person, friends. When will it all stop? The first question is what are you trying to cope with? The second question is when did it all start where was the stress event or stressful trigger?
There may be a genetic factor to tendencies for high stress and the environmental situations may cause it to express itself in panic attacks or heart disease or other mental/ physical manifestations. Meanwhile the brain is taking cues from the body and its current surroundings while the mind is interpreting the meaning of these cues and then the question is – what to do?
One problem is human beings are phenomenally adaptable. So if you grow up around certain expressions of anxiety (talking too much, isolating, over socializing, and shutting down) you are used to these and can easily accept levels of these learned anti-stress behaviors that are not healthy in your current life. The other problem with adaptability is people who are used to resolving their stress will simply try to “fix it”. They will do all kinds of things to lower stress but expect resolution quickly even in areas where there is no immediate fix possible. With prolonged stress such as a caregiver’s absence or unemployment the anxiety switch in the brain – the amygdale – may be stuck in the ‘on’ position.
What to do now: Get to know your stress responses below level 5. You still have the ability to create new reactions. Make a list of what you know for example the amount of sleep you must have, the types of exercise that provide relaxation, the types of food you consume. Complete the following statement: My Anxiety could be lower if I did more…., My anxiety would be lower if I didn’t … when I feel stress.
Dr. Sara Denning is the Author of My Anxiety Notebook, an in depth look at how individuals learn their anxiety response and how to create long term coping mechanism that lower stress. Go to Myanxietynotebook.com to download the book.
Cichetti & Tucker, ’94, Central nervous system (CNS) reacts and modifies itself to environmental challenges . The function of developing brain is to either constrain or enable reaction.
D. Schore , ’94, Social emotional development of interpersonal positive or negative effects are based on experience-dependent maturation of brain.