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Decoding Emotional Responses: Navigating Worry, Anxiety, and Stress

Essential part of developing our emotional intelligence and emotional agility is the ability to observe and name our mental and emotional states and understand the difference between them. Sometimes events, thoughts, and feelings get all mixed up, and we find ourselves in a state of overwhelm dominated by worry, anxiety, and stress. Most people talk about worry, anxiety and stress interchangeably as if they are the same thing. For example, the interview really stressed me out; I was so worried about it, or, this upcoming presentation is making my stomach hurt! The lack of differentiation between these different states, makes it harder to learn specific skills to resolve or treat them effectively. Understanding the subtle, yet essential distinctions between worry, stress, and anxiety, can help us to use the right tools and strategies to self-regulate and better cope with them.

What is the difference between Stress, Anxiety and Worry?

Worry is the "thoughts" we have about perceived or actual threat or danger. It happens in our frontal lobes, the part of our brain that plans, thinks, and uses words. Worry has to do with thoughts like – what's going to happen in my upcoming presentation? Will they like me? Worry can help us to solve complex problems by thinking about them perhaps over and over again. But, if worry becomes distorted, compulsive, or stuck into a repetitive cycle, then we can develop disorders like depression and anxiety. Stress is a "physiological response" to perceived or actual threat or danger. It is a part of the Flight or Fight or Freeze response , which is a spontaneous, unconscious reaction activated in the oldest part of the brain – the Reptilian Brain. Stress serves a perfect function in helping us to escape real threats and danger. For example, the sweating that comes with stress helps us to stay cool, or the adrenalin helps us to perform in situations where you need to run away or fight off a physical threat. However, if stress becomes chronic and remains unresolved, it can have serious consequences in our body; high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and chronic illnesses are all associated with stress.

Anxiety is the "intersection" of Worry and Stress; the thinking and the physiological response. Anxiety combines both the thoughts of danger and the body's fight, flight, or freeze response. Its rooted in the Limbic System and it has to do with a feeling of dread like something bad is going to happen. Anxiety helps people to be watchful for danger but if it dominates our life, it can make it hard for us to feel joy and to move forward in the direction of our values.

Interventions to manage Worry, Anxiety, and Stress

In order to manage Worry, we need to target those negative thought with cognitive intervention; changing how we think and changing what we are constantly imagining or visualizing in our mind. In order to manage Stress, we need to take a bottom up approach- incorporating our body’s reactions and responses into interventions that change those reactions and responses into a healthy way. The first step of emotional management is Awareness. Start to pay attention to what it feels like when you are having an anxious response. Is it rooted in your mind? Are you are having thoughts or imagining some future catastrophe? Or, is it rooted in your body? Are you having these physiological reactions like an upset stomach, fast heart beat, sweaty hands, etc? As you start to pay more attention to these reactions and gain more awareness around them, you will develop great ability to learn how to respond to these instinctual reaction in a more helpful way.

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