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Finding Balance in the Midst of Stress

by Denise Schonwald


Stress can be defined as “the brain’s response to any demand” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. When people face demands—physical or emotional—the brain releases chemicals and hormones to help the body function within those demands. This response can be useful, but if prolonged, it can also begin to affect a person’s health and well-being. 

Many people assume their daily stress does not affect them physically, that mental stress and physical health are separate entities. But the fact is, they are intrinsically connected. When we feel stressed, either physically or mentally, we are caught in our limbic brains which causes our bodies to enter a constant fight-or-flight mode.

As part of this fight-or-flight response, the heart rate and blood pressure increase. We develop a heightened awareness of our surroundings, and we become anxious. These changes occur to prepare the body to react in a dangerous situation, but if left untreated for an extended period—as in response to chronic stress—they can lead to eventual panic.

Often, we associate panic with the situation we found ourselves in when the feeling occurred.  For example, we’re in a grocery store aisle when suddenly, we start to experience a panic attack. Now, we are afraid to enter that grocery store. We believe a catastrophe will occur inside, and we won’t be able to survive it. Then over time, more negative or inaccurate thinking begins, and the condition spirals into physical deterioration.

Many of my patients come to me after they have been to the emergency room with heart palpitations, sweating and other symptoms, thinking they’ve suffered a heart attack. When the heart symptoms they experience are not cardiac events, it becomes apparent their symptoms are manifestations of the stress and panic they feel. I address these issues, using several proven approaches that I will enumerate on below.

First, I help clients challenge their inaccurate thoughts. They might believe if they don’t accomplish a hundred tasks in a single day, it will end in disaster. This is an example of an inaccurate thought. Running a few minutes late or not having time to unload the dishwasher, for instance, is not the end of the world. In addition to challenging their thought patterns, I also help patients stabilize their health with diet and exercise. Studies indicate that sugar worsens anxiety, so eliminating high-sugar processed foods from their diet often helps tremendously. 

I also help patients understand they need emotional balance, physical health and spiritual awareness. This can be as simple as time they dedicate to be quiet, still and present when they’re not on the phone or the computer. Often, I encourage patients to practice some type of meditation or head outside and look at the sky or appreciate the music they are listening to. This can take them from the sympathetic nervous system into the parasympathetic which is where human beings feel the most relaxed, calm and peaceful.

Counseling can be an effective tool in combating the effects of stress. If people are wiling to do the work, stress is something that can be improved in a short amount of time.  It is also an issue I have tremendous success with addressing in just a few sessions.


Denise Schonwald is a registered nurse and licensed mental health counselor, practicing at Four Pillars located at 8209 Natures Way, Suite 221, Lakewood Ranch. For more information, call 941-373-3955, email or visit


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