Today’s the day. It’s the day you deliver the presentation you’ve been working on for the past
month detailing the department’s goals for the new year. The CEO will be there and all your
managers and colleagues too.

How do you feel? Nervous about standing up in front of so many people? Worried that you’ll make a mistake? ‘Butterflies’ in your stomach?

If you ever experience these sorts of reactions in certain situations, don’t worry, everything’s okay. They are symptoms of anxiety brought on by a known stressor. And they are a normal human reaction to a stressful situation.

If there is a quick way to describe anxiety, perhaps Psychology Today does it best: “people with
anxiety tend to overestimate the likelihood of negative things happening, but most importantly
they underestimate their ability to cope if something negative did happen.”

We all have a stress reaction to one or more stressors, and anxiety symptoms are a signal that
we have encountered a stressor and our minds and bodies are reacting to it.

Everyone’s mental and emotional makeup is different and we all react differently to stressors.
Someone else in the company might deliver the presentation without a second thought, yet
another might be unable to walk on stage.

Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety symptoms can be psychological and/or physical, but they are all rooted in your
emotional reaction to a real or perceived stressor. The severity of symptoms can range from
almost imperceptible to severely debilitating.

Anxiety symptoms can include compulsive, obsessive thoughts and/or behaviours, like replaying
an anxious situation in your mind, fingernail biting or constantly cleaning the kitchen counter.
There can be difficulty in concentrating, restlessness, sleeplessness, irritability, frustration and
despair. Physical symptoms can include trembling, sweating, rapid heartbeat, nausea,
headaches and breathing difficulties. Feelings of panic, fear, and worry, usually out of proportion
to the stressor, are also signs of anxiety.

Managing Anxiety
If you sometimes experience anxiety symptoms that are disruptive, you can take steps to
manage them and lessen their effect.

The first step is to identify the stressors that trigger your anxiety. As you get a better
understanding of what brings on your anxiety and when, you can develop coping mechanisms,
or develop those you may already have, to better deal with it.

Anxiety Stressors
The situations and/or events that bring on anxiety can be very obvious, like a $1,000 bill when
you only have $100 in your account; or they can be a mystery, like suddenly feeling that
something bad is about to happen, even though the bills are paid and you’re safely curled up on
the couch.

Anxiety stressors generally fall into two groups, external stressors and internal stressors.

External Stressors
External stressors are events and situations that happen around you. They can include:

  • Life Events – These can include the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job. But even positive life events can trigger anxiety, including a new job, the birth of a child or falling in
  • The World Around You – Sensual input from your environment can cause anxiety.
    From the darker days of winter, to the screeching of car tires, your reaction to a wide
    variety of events and situations in the world around you can bring on anxiety symptoms.
    Interestingly, most of us are increasingly connected with the world through media and
    technology. From 24-hour news channels to social media updates on the happy events
    in the lives of our family and friends, that increased connection can mean increased
  • Work-Related Events – These can include looming deadlines; a colleague being fired
    or difficulty in working with someone. More serious work-related stressors can include
    physical or mental abuse by a superior.
  • Social Interactions – Everything from starting and maintaining a conversation, to
    meeting someone new, and even stressful family relationships, are social stressors.

Internal stressors
Sometimes you must look within yourself to spot the stressors that produce your anxiety.
Internal stressors can include:

  • Fears – Especially when the fear is unwarranted by the stressor, like the fear of
    delivering a corporate presentation, or a fear of spiders. These types of out of proportion
    fears are often termed phobias.
  • Lack of Control or Uncertainty – There are lots of things in our lives that we can’t
    influence. But sometimes that lack of control, or uncertainty about an outcome, can
    create anxiety, like when your child travels alone on a plane for the first time, or you’re
    waiting for the CEO’s feedback on the presentation.
  • Learned Stressors – The religion of the family you were born into, the things that
    caused your parents’ anxiety, something a teacher once cautioned against; any opinion,
    belief or reaction you were exposed to when growing up can become your own and
    trigger your anxiety.

Coping Mechanisms for Anxiety
Now that you have an idea of the sorts of things that can cause anxiety, let’s look at ways to
manage it. The first thing you should know is that, regardless of whether you are trying to
harness your reactions to external or internal stressors, you’re up against powerful, instinctive
reactions that can be a challenge to change.

In no particular order, one or more of the following can help you deal with one or more of your
anxiety symptoms.

  • Take a Deep Breath – Or two. There’s scientific evidence that taking a deep breath
    actually works to calm you down.
  • Set Aside ‘Alone’ Time Each Day – This may not be easy, but, especially if you
    meditate, being quietly alone and listening to your thoughts can help your mind deal
    with the confusion and unease that may be at the root of your anxiety.
  • Exercise Regularly – Some anxiety symptoms are the result of a ‘fight or flight’
    response. With roots dating back to our prehistoric ancestors, who may have looked
    down the jaws of a predator and had to decide in a split second, “do I fight, or do I run?”,
    the response sets your mind and body up for either scenario, including pumping your
    body full of energy, increasing your heart rate and opening blood vessels.
    But when the fight or flight response is triggered by anxiety, all that energy and
    readiness for action has nowhere to go and can cause symptoms like a racing heart and
    feelings of panic. Exercise can be an outlet for the fight or flight response and other
    symptoms of anxiety.
  • Indulge in Hobbies – From painting a picture to gardening, try a pastime that relaxes
    and distracts you.
  • Be on the Lookout for Stressors and Responses – If you know the presentation is coming up and that it might bring on anxiety symptoms, put a plan in place for dealing with symptoms if they arise. And keep on the lookout for subtle symptoms that you didn’t anticipate, like increased alcohol consumption, irritably or sleepless nights.
  • Write Things Down – To help maintain a sense of control, write down everything you need to do each day and try your best to follow it. It can also help to write about stressors and your feelings and reactions to them even as you’re experiencing anxiety.
  • Get Your Sleep – Among many other mental and physical reasons for getting a good night’s sleep, scientists believe that sleep helps your brain organize and deal with the ‘fragmented’ activity that anxiety can produce.
  • Get Help From Others – Talking about your stressors, reactions and symptoms with a close family member or friend can help you understand and deal with them better.

Anxiety, its causes and coping mechanisms are complex issues. Using the tips and advice listed
above might take some practice, but its important that you try instead of avoiding the problem.
If you’ve worked to identify stressors and tried your own coping mechanisms, but still haven’t
been able to get a handle on your responses, you may need to get help from a mental health
professional. Professional psychological care can assess your particular issues and recommend
more effective, personalized ways of dealing with them.

If you would like to learn more about anxiety, its stressors, symptoms and coping mechanisms,
please call us here at BRCook Psychological Services. We can help.

Bruce R. Cook

I have been a practicing mental health professional for the past 26 years and I have worked in various public and private practice settings throughout the GTA and Ontario. The populations that I work with are adults 18-64 and I have extensive experience working with both individuals on various presenting problems, and also as a couples’ therapist.

I am a certified solution-focused therapist, and I integrate a number of theoretical orientations into my practice including cognitive-behavioural, humanistic, psychodynamic, reality focused therapy. In essence, my experience and style have been dynamically moved into an eclectic approach that best seems to fit the client and their personal needs.
Bruce R. Cook