Are your daily life stressors causing you anxiety?

By Kristen Fuller, M.D. (From Psychology Today Website)

Do you find yourself overwhelmed with worry, nervousness, or lingering guilt?

Do you feel a lot of tension built up in your body from overwhelming stress?

What is stress?

Stress, a term coined by Hans Selye in the 1930s, was initially defined as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” Selye believed the pressure of stress generates the motivation we need to adjust our behavior, and he thought stress could be either good or bad. A little bit of stress can keep us on our toes by getting us out of bed in the morning, making us wary of any potential danger, and reminding us of our daily responsibilities. 

We all react to stress and anxiety in unique ways. Some of us may be able to adapt and cope with stressful situations in a healthy manner, while others may feel severely overwhelmed by the slightest amount of stress. Our ability to cope with stress is tightly linked to both environmental and genetic factors. 

But what happens when stress and anxiety begin to interfere with multiple aspects of our everyday life? 

What happens when we can no longer perform our work tasks without worrying, or always doubt our decision-making skills and personal relationship choices?

What stresses you out?

Many things can make us feel stressed and anxious: family tension, financial stress, personal relationships, physical health, world politics, and even daily tasks. Our body has a natural response to stress, allowing low levels of stress to be healthy and even motivating

The stress response

Stressful circumstances can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes. A stressful situation can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Muscles can tense up, and sweat beads quickly appear.

These physiological reactions to stress are also known as the “fight-or-flight” response because they evolved as survival mechanisms, enabling individuals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The stress response begins in the brain, specifically the amygdala, which sends a message to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the control center in the brain that communicates with the rest of the body via the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions like breathing, blood pressure, and heartbeat. The sympathetic nervous system is a branch of the autonomic nervous system responsible for the “fight or flight” response when we sense danger lurking behind the corner. The hypothalamus sends signals throughout the body to release cortisol and epinephrine, resulting in immediate physiological reactions to stress. This cascade of events often happens before the individual has a chance to process what is happening. That’s why people can jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing. 

Stress versus anxiety

Stress is a standard defense mechanism for survival. Anxiety is often thought of as the anticipation of future threats. Clinical definitions of anxiety focus on the emotional distress surrounding a potential negative stimulus, not necessarily an immediate reaction to the stimulus itself.

Stress tends to be situational and refers to a present and real demand. For example, our boss expects us to meet a deadline, our spouse expects us to pick up the dry cleaning, our child expects us to pick them up from school, a client expects us to deliver a product. We feel stress as we do what is needed to comply with life’s demands. It is about the present moment.

Anxiety tends to be about the future, and what might happen.  It’s a “fear or nervousness about life’s unforeseeable events.”

Anxiety and stress become unhealthy when they become roadblocks in our everyday life, preventing us from doing the things we need or want to do daily. Anxiety may be accompanied by physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, body aches, diarrhea, chest pain, problems sleeping, loss of appetite, and many other disruptive signs and symptoms.

Are you predisposed to high levels of stress and anxiety?

Some people seem to go through life without having much stress, whereas others walk around suffering from chronic anxiety. Studies have shown that certain genes are linked to specific anxiety traits. However, not all stress and anxiety is inherited. 

Environmental factors also play a significant role in the development of stress and anxiety. Past traumachildhood adversity, bullying, unhealthy relationships, and poverty are all environmental factors that contribute to the development of stress and anxiety.