Stress and anxiety disorders

Watch a video summarizing this page. 

Stress and anxiety are different. This page will explain the difference and the interaction between the two.

What is stress?

Stress can be defined as what we experience when our challenges outweigh the resources we have to meet them. 

It is highly individual in that certain individuals will perceive situations as stressful when others will not. A work meeting may be stressful for you when another colleague may find it fine. 

Your capability to handle stress various throughout your life.  You may find you can handle a situation fine at one point in your life but at another moment in time you cannot manage it. This depends on the resources you have at any given moment in time. If you are battling a headache for example, you may find a conversation with your child about them not doing their homework more stressful than at another time. 

It is cumulative, meaning the more stressed you are the less able you are to handle circumstances. If you have been dealing with trouble at work, a chronic illness, and a dying parent, you are likely dealing with very depleted resources. 

It isn't quite so easy to separate stress from anxiety disorders. Although we generally think of anxiety as worry about the future and stress something that is happening right now, they can mix together.  Further complicating things for us is the fact that In literature the two are often used interchangeably.    "Free yourself from stress and anxiety disorders!" headlines claim.

Stress and it's impact on the body

To understand stress and it's relationship to anxiety disorders we need to understand a little about it's impact on the body.  When our body feels stress it releases a hormone called cortisol. Our body does this to help us mobilize resources we need to fight danger. In the past this we immensely helpful in keeping us alive.  It activated a  " fight or flight mode" and kept us alive by helping us have the physical resources to do what needed to be done.  

Other things happen too. Our heart pumps blood faster and to our limbs, our pupils widen so our vision becomes better, all in an effort to prepare us for threat. 

The thing is, now, we don't really need to be fighting or fleeing. The normal stress we have isn't usually life or death. It's more likely we need to step back, relax, and think with our smart brains about how to  handle situations. 

As if that wasn't bad enough our brain is also activated by stress.  That's where the relationship between stress and anxiety disorders becomes more clear and very interesting. 

Stress and anxiety disorders: The brain connection

When we are under stress a specific part of our brain that we think of as more primitive is activated.  The primitive brain is concerned with survival, not with logical and sound thinking. When we are under chronic stress this area becomes activated, overtaxed and overloaded.  Also, when we are using the primitive place of our brain we do not have access to the more recently developed upper cortex or thinking and reasoning part of our brain. This is why when you are having an anxiety attack, or are in a panic state, your thoughts are so jumbled and fearful. Anxiety rules the day. When you are under chronic stress, this state of hyperarousal can cause you to feel anxious almost all the time. 

In fact, stress exacerbates almost every mental and physical illness that exists because of the havoc it wreaks on our body. Clearly the body and mind are not separate. 

STress and Anxiety Disorders what to do?

Mindfulness techniques, and other therapeutic strategies described in these pages or learned in therapy  can help bypass these patterns. We usually refer to the amygdala as the part of the primitive brain that needs to be tamed and the prefrontal cortex as the part of the new brain that needs to do the taming. 

Over the past few decades we have learned the brain is malleable and that is great news. It can be changed. We have good reason to believe that you can learn to downregulate your amygdala and change your brain for the better training a new stress response and healing yourself from the more anxious pattern that may be taking place.  

Leave stress and anxiety disorders for what is mindfulness meditation

1. Cunningham, J. B. (1997). The Stress Management Sourcebook. Los Angeles, CA: NTC Contemporary.Chicago

2. Greenberg, M. ( 2017). The Stressproof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity. Oakland,CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Stress awareness day: This is what long-term stress could be doing to your health. (2017, Nov 01). Western People Retrieved from http://nclive.org/cgi-bin/nclsm?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1958428001?accountid=13217

Thanks for visiting! Feel free to email me at kristenlynnmcclure@gmail.com
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