Oh hello, friends! My BFF Sam and I are each answering questions regarding chronic stress and anxiety today. Fun, right?? While we aren't medical experts (and you should definitely consult your doctor if you think you're having an issue), we've both walked through parts of life while experiencing debilitating stress and anxiety. And we wanted to share about those experiences with you in hopes that it might help or encourage you in your own journey OR help you know how to walk alongside a friend dealing with this. Sound good? Okay great, let's get started. 

How do you know that what you're experiencing is chronic stress and anxiety and what does it do to your body? 

First of all, when I started having anxiety, I didn't know what it was. Because of my various symptoms, I knew something was very, very wrong with me, but I didn't have a name for it. I'd leave my office and go for a walk and sit on a bench by myself and pray and cry because I was so terrified and I couldn't control whatever was happening to me. I honestly thought I was dying of some unknown disease when I first started experiencing anxiety at the level I did.

It took me over a year and a lot of time with doctors to figure out that the medical issues I was having were due to chronic stress and anxiety. I had every test under the sun done that had to do with my stomach and digestion because that was my problem area. I had been suffering from insomnia for weeks and weeks, had a headache that lasted for months, got to the point where I lost everything I tried to eat, and was at an alarmingly low body weight. My body was rejecting all nutrients I was trying to give it and was shutting down. My situation was quite dramatic and scary, but that might not be your story. You could have different symptoms or struggles, but I encourage you to get help now rather than later. I promise you'll thank yourself. 

What happens to your body during an anxiety attack? 

Everyone is different. I start feeling dizzy, my head hurts, my breathing is more quick and shallow, and my heart beats harder (not faster) like it's pounding to get out. I've never had a panic attack like some that I know where things get so out of control that you cannot catch a breath or get things to slow down. My panic attacks are still no fun at all and quite scary, but they do typically pass within a few minutes. I typically sit and wait it out or go for a walk to get some deep breaths of fresh air. And I always tell someone (usually my husband) that it's happening. It's not something to be ashamed of, and you need someone to be aware that you are not okay. 

How do you manage anxiety and reduce stress? What are the ways you've found to cope with anxiety? 

After going to counseling for a bit, we realized the first step in managing my anxiety is to TALK. IT. OUT. If I am feeling anxious, I need to tell a trusted friend. Anxiety (AKA fear) loses some of its power when you've exposed it to the light -- when you've told someone about it. And I had to realize that no matter how crazy or irrational my fear might seem, I needed to say it out loud. So now I do that with my husband, and he gets to speak truth into my life. He doesn't get to tell me I'm crazy, but he gets to take my fear and tell me what's true and what is not, which helps give my mind and heart a firmer grip on what's real in that moment. The majority of my anxiety-inducing fears are rooted in very real things that have happened or something my intuition tells me is a red flag. And guess what? So far, I haven't been wrong. It's just a reminder to listen to yourself -- anxiety can be your mind trying to tell you something. So pay attention.

As I said earlier, my anxiety affects my stomach, and I can suffer from severe nausea because of it. My counselor once told me that our minds can figure out the truth before our bodies can. So while my mind may have stopped its spiral and come to grips with the truth, my body (and my tummy) is still suffering from the fear for a bit longer. To me, that is some encouragement that at least part of me is smart enough to know what's going on.😂 

Another huge healing part of my journey was going to Neurofeedback therapy. When I first heard about it, I thought it sounded like the kookiest thing, but my dad was the one telling me about it, and as a counselor himself, this type of therapy is something he's seen work for so many people. I felt pretty strongly about trying to work through my anxiety without going on any medication longterm, so this seemed like a great option to try. For me, Neurofeedback was highly successful in helping to retrain my brain to think and work in healthier patterns. 

Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress and anxiety. For me, exercise doesn't really mean going to the gym -- I hate working out in front of other people. I workout at home, I go on a LOT of walks, and the best exercise for my anxiety is going for a hike in a beautiful place in the great outdoors. Fresh air and time in nature will do your mind and your body a world of good. I read recently that in order to get maximum health benefits from being out in nature, you need to be outside for 2 hours a week. 

Other simple things I do to cope with anxiety are to listen to music, journal, pray, watch my favorite movies, and have my husband tell me jokes -- he makes me laugh the hardest, and laughter is the best medicine. 

What happens to your mental health when chronic stress and anxiety is present? 

Gosh, for the longest time, I felt like I was living in a really thick fog. My brain was not functioning at full capacity or anywhere close. It was a struggle to get through each day. It was difficult to put my thoughts in the right order. That's not to say I couldn't think or make decisions, but it did take me a little longer to process and complete the things I was trying to do.

I lost the usual drive I have for life. I struggled with depression. I just didn't have the energy or the brain space to do a whole lot besides making sure I got all of my work done and ate enough calories.

How can others be supportive to those experiencing stress and anxiety?

Practical things you can do for your friends: Bring them something to eat or drink. Sometimes we forget to eat. Ask them to go for a walk with you. Sometimes it's hard to go by ourselves. Send them encouraging texts and give them a phone call. Sometimes we feel really isolated and forgotten.

Whether or not you can understand what your friend is going through, the most helpful thing is to be present with them. Whether that's over the phone or in person, making them feel seen and loved is going to be huge. And when they are brave enough to share their fears and anxiety with you, don't make fun. Don't tell them they are crazy. Listen, we get it that our anxiety makes us seem a little irrational sometimes, but also some of our fears are very well-founded and very, very real. So please listen and please be kind. Remind them that they are not a burden for having burdens.

The days of discovering my diagnosis and recovering mentally and physically were difficult and dark days for me. I was fighting for my life, and most people didn't and don't understand that. And that was hard, but it's also not their fault. You can't understand it unless you've been through it, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone. With the help of family, doctors, incredible counselors, Jesus, my amazing husband (who was only my boyfriend then,) friends, and a lot of time, I've come so far. While my intense anxiety hasn't reared its ugly head in a few months, I could easily wake up tomorrow and have days or weeks of anxiety. The thing I have to remind myself of is this: I know what the issue is now and I know how to get through it. I may not know when it will end, but I know it will end. And the most important thing for me to remember is that Jesus has brought me through it once, and He can be trusted to do it again. That's the truth my heart needs to hear.

Hop on over to Sam's blog to read about her experience and what advice she has to offer!