Explained: Do We Really Understand Stress and Anxiety?
How does stress and anxiety impact you physically? And can you control your response to it?
If Hans Selye, the 'father of Stress' had not experimented with his lab rats by injecting them with various biochemical extracts, and formalin, human race would have not known the word "Stress". The mothers would have still reacted the same way with young kids jumping around, and fathers would have screamed with the same intensity in and around the house. The teenagers would have fretted the same way defying the authority of adults, and still would have got alarmed if their mobile phone went into scanner.
This much sought after single word brought such a huge difference to our lives and made all our sufferings easy to communicate.
But, do we really understand why we feel stressed and anxious?
What changes in our body when we are stressed /anxious?
How does it affect our life and relationships?
Stress Can Trigger Anxiety
Stress is a natural and reasonable reaction which is triggered by external unpleasant situations. For example, if your superior yelled at you for lousy performance at work, you’ll get stressed. Whereas, the anticipation and fear of your superior yelling at you again, may cause anxiety in you.
In a nutshell, stress response happens when the mind faces situations where body's existence is under threat; whereas, anxiety is imaginary threat which mind perceives to happen in future which causes suspense and nervousness.
It is also a feeling of unease about something with an uncertain outcome. It’s an emotion which causes inner turmoil leading to worry, or apprehension which in turn precipitates into fearfulness, agitation, and tension.
If observed carefully, stress and anxiety emanate from each other. It's like a vicious cycle where one thing leads to another and vice versa. But it's also known as a necessary evil and crucial mechanism for survival.
Nature has gifted us with this unique characteristic of threat perception of the surrounding environment to save us from dangerous situations which leads to stress and defensive reaction. It's only because of this gift that human race has survived till date on this planet.
These reactions are fight, flight or freeze, and every human being chooses to react according to their intrinsic characteristics. It's quite evident when different people give varied reactions to the same situation.
When Anxiety Becomes a Habit
But our mind is not always correct in differentiating between genuine and imaginary threat stimuli. That's why, most people remain anxious over situations which may not be threatening. Slowly it becomes the habit and every time there is some situation causing concern, our body reacts in the same way.
The stress reaction works in three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion stage.
In alarm stage, the sympathetic nervous system gets activated, blood drains from the brain and rushes to muscles to help you be ready for 'fight-or-flight mode'. The stress hormones, adrenaline, cortisol and non-epinephrine are released during stress causing:
- Increased breathing
- Heart rate
- There is a sudden burst of energy during stressful situations
This stage has to quickly pass away as vitals have to return to normal rhythm and body energy can't be depleted for very long duration. For this, we have resistance stage, where the parasympathetic nervous system takes over to bring back everything to normal. Till the time, stress is optimum, our efficiency and performance increases, but if the situation prevails for longer duration, the anxiety caused by stress prevents us from returning to normal, leading to exhaustion.
Chronic stress can lead to:
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- High blood pressure
- Skin irritation
- Stomach pain
Stress and anxiety brings out people's worst traits, as they have a hard time thinking straight. They could be either totally withdrawn, or more irritable and hostile, turning non-issues into issues.
Earlier it used to be physical danger. In the present era, social and professional stressors pose a threat in our daily lives which could be real or imaginary.
So, learn to differentiate between the real threat and perceived threat. Most of the stress reactions are due to imaginary situations which are avoidable and can save us from agonizing consequences. External situations are not in our hands; but our reactions to those situations characterize us. That reaction defines which material we are constituted of - Tensile or Rigid.
In words of Victor Frankl - "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom".
(The author is a Bangaluru based Clinical Psychologist and ReAttach Therapist)
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