The stress response and anxiety

Stress is an inevitable fact of life. Stress and anxiety are part of being human, although they are helpful in getting one out of extreme situations where a fight-or-flight response is necessary for our survival, but both can be problems if they last for a long time or have an impact on our well-being or daily life.

Stress is actually completely normal, and it’s not necessarily bad. It serves a purpose, after all. Stress is a biological and psychological response experienced on encountering a threat that we feel we do not have the resources to deal with. A stressor is the stimulus (or threat) that causes stress, e.g. exam, divorce, death of loved one, moving house, loss of job, which results in stress.

Contrary to general belief, there is a difference between stress and anxiety. The difference between them is that stress is a response to a threat in a situation while anxiety is a reaction to the stress. Symptoms of anxiety and stress are driven by the same chemical reaction; stress is a normal response to a threatening situation and anxiety is largely caused by worry.

Everyone experiences anxious feelings. Unhelpful or distorted thinking is likely to be one of the biggest causes of anxiety. Anxiety is the feeling of distress when you are uncertain about what might happen. I want to point out that being human, by its very nature,  includes anxiety. We always live in the unknown. You can be anxious about speaking in front of an interviewer, audience, being late, learning to drive, walking and crossing the street alone. All of this is anxiety provoking as it is part of our human condition. It is not a matter of anxiety being bad or good. It is your relationship to your anxiety that is important. Understanding what causes you to feel anxious and then working on ways to manage anxiety is essential to finding more peace, happiness and balance in your life.

The stress response and anxiety

The stress response has physical, mental and behavioral components. We all have an inbuilt stress response, which is a normal and healthy in many respests. We need it and couldn’t survive without it. This response starts when our brain perceives something stressful – whether a major crisis or simply a change in our routine – which then triggers our body to make stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones enter our bloodstream and travel throughout the body, suppressing less urgent activities such as digestion and fighting infection in favor of creating responses that help us deal with the stress we are experiencing – increased heart rate, brain activity, and muscle contraction. When the stress is gone, the hormones return to their usual, optimal level, and our body goes back to digesting food, preventing infections, processing thoughts and emotions, and the other usual functions.

Once the stress triggers the bell of awareness and lets you know that the stressors in your life need attention, the management decisions are up to you. Stress management can manage your level of stress, it works when you develop your stamina, maintain your flexibility, and nourish your cells. The point is to build your resilience by maintaining the integrity of body, mind and spirit. Your health and well-being depend on these factors working together, in a balanced way that honors all your needs.

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