Anxiety and stress are present in many of the psychological problems (pathological or not) that we suffer throughout life. Therefore, knowing their nature allows us to better manage this form of discomfort that occurs when stress accumulates too much and is counterproductive.

On this occasion we talked to the psychologist Sara Laso so that she could explain to us the key aspects of understanding stress and anxiety.

Interview with Sara Laso: the influence of stress and anxiety in our lives

Sara Laso Lozano is a General Health Psychologist and practices in the city of Badalona. She is a specialist in Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology and in General Health Psychology, and over several years attending patients with all kinds of problems she has come to see the different forms that anxiety and stress take.

In what contexts is anxiety useful?

This is a very good question, considering that for most people, anxiety is a problem.

Anxiety is a response to a stimulus that is considered aversive, dangerous, or unpleasant. It would act as an alarm, an alarm that warns us that something is not right and so we must put a solution.

We could say that, although anxiety is considered a serious mental health problem, in my humble opinion, I believe that it is the best sign we can have to resolve those internal conflicts that generate a deep malaise. Therefore, I believe that anxiety can be useful in any context. However, the problem lies in its management and how to understand it. The lack of control, the feeling of incapacity when we suffer it, the symptoms we feel and an altered state of mind, is when we could say that we really have a serious problem to solve.

Since there’s a point where stress and anxiety become a problem… Do you think that in our culture of effort, attempts are made to normalize this pathological anxiety by making it a necessary evil?

It is very true that society has normalized the concept of “anxiety”, as if everyone suffered from it and even as if it was normal to suffer from it. There are people who consider that we are not exempt from suffering from it and we could even say that it is a disorder that doctors diagnose on a daily basis as a matter of routine.

Any discomfort that the person may suffer, goes through anxiety diagnosis and overmedication, considering that anxiolytics are the best solution and in many cases, it seems that the only one. We all know someone who takes anxiolytics. If we were to make a count of our closest environment that speaks of anxiety as something normal, we would be alarmed.

What are the most frequent stress related complaints that patients come to your practice with in the first session?

The most frequent complaints are of a physical nature. They mention general discomfort, chest tightness, tachycardia, feeling dizzy, headache, sweating, loss or increase of appetite, decreased sex drive, fatigue and in many cases, nausea and/or vomiting.

However, in that first session it is important to find out how they feel emotionally and how it affects them in other areas and most of them feel feelings of hopelessness, discouragement, anguish, low mood, often accompanied by sleeping and eating problems.

And what psychotherapeutic tools are most effective in stopping that discomfort?

I personally work a lot with the different relaxation and breathing techniques. Specifically I put a lot of emphasis on diaphragmatic breathing, being one of the techniques par excellence in anxiety and/or stress disorders. It is a technique that seems simple to explain, but at the time of practice is where the difficulties come because poorly performed can trigger symptoms of hyperventilation. For that reason it is important to train it in consultation and out of it.

I don’t want to forget that one of the techniques I do most in consultation is the practice of Mindfulness. It is very suitable for anxiety and/or stress disorders. Well developed and with enough daily practice, the person experiences an improvement in a very short time. There are many studies about Mindfulness that support its effectiveness.

At a cognitive level, I like to work with cognitive techniques such as Albert Ellis’ ABC model that teaches us to visualize what thoughts we have, what we feel and how we act, cognitive restructuring and self-instruction.
And finally, to include work on self-esteem, generally affected by feelings of lack of self-control and derived frustration.

What phases do patients usually go through to get better?

I’m going to explain the different phases that the patient goes through until his complete improvement.

The first is understanding anxiety. It is a very important phase and we could say that it is the basis of recovery. It is necessary to understand what anxiety is, why it appears, to accept it and not to fight against it (the more we face it, the more we lose the battles), as well as to be aware of its responsibility.

Then there’s the process of working through the anxiety. It is important to learn how to use different relaxation and breathing techniques, as well as use cognitive techniques to make those intrusive and anticipatory thoughts that generate anxiety. We tend to think beyond, predict the future and think we know it because of that, it is important to use cognitive techniques to manage thinking.

On the other hand we can intervene by increasing self-esteem. The patient feels a substantial improvement, his self-control capacity improves and he feels that stress and/or anxiety do not dominate him. Therefore, their self-esteem is improved.

Finally there is maintenance, the last phase of your improvement. It takes a long enough time to decide that the patient is in the last phase of maintenance. This is where the psychologist should help you remember the various techniques, help you not forget the etiology of your anxiety and that your thoughts about it remain adaptive.

And in relation to the role of each patient’s family members… what can fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters and the like do to support a person who has anxiety and stress problems?

The most important thing is to start understanding what’s going on. We could say that here empathy and understanding are two essential factors in order to help the patient.

I often say that sometimes it is better to listen than to give advice that can frustrate the patient. They should avoid the “that’s nothing”, “come on, everything’s going well”, “that’ll pass in two days”, “don’t think, you’ll see how it works”. Such statements or advice cause frustration in the patient because they feel misunderstood.

And if you don’t know what to say… Hold him and listen to him!”

Beyond the measures we can take individually to combat excess stress, how do you think society should change so that this phenomenon is not so widespread?

As we have said before, the problem lies in the generalization and/or normalization of this phenomenon that leads us to diverse psychopathologies, so we should start to emphasize this, to understand that stress is not normal and therefore, there is much that we must change. We would talk about a social change and it is where we find the greatest difficulty in modifying such a situation.

If we could change all this, if people were able to accept that suffering from chronic and pathological stress is not normal, they would accept, therefore, to modify their lifestyle, their unadaptive thoughts and the way they deal with the various problems that life puts in our way.

So… What should we do? Think that education not only helps us learn that 2+2 is 4. Education starts to support emotional intelligence, teaches children Mindfulness techniques, relaxation techniques and breathing. This is the key.

If, from the time we are born and are small, we develop emotional intelligence and how we should manage our emotions and our daily lives, subsequent generations would change their way of life and this chronic and pathological stress would end up being a phenomenon of the past.