When is the last time you stumbled across a big scary bear in the woods?
Remember that traffic jam you ran into when you were already late for work? How about the exam you sat down to take and realized "uh oh, this is not what I prepared for"? According to your brain - those were big scary bears.
The way our brains are set up, the sudden demands and challenging situations of daily life are interpreted as physical threats. And, when faced with a physical threat, our body goes into a stress response, preparing us to either physically fight or run away.
THE STRESS RESPONSE
The stress response (commonly known as "fight or flight") is the way our body physically reacts when we encounter stressors - which are simply situations that our brains consider to be threatening. These stressors trigger a flood of hormones throughout our body, enabling us to become more efficient, in a very short time, at either fighting or running. Our hearts beat faster, pumping out blood to our muscles. We begin to breathe more rapidly as our lungs take in more oxygen. The oxygen flow to our brain increases, sharpening our senses and narrowing our immediate focus.
This type of physical response is great on that rare occasion when we are actually facing a bear. And, not so great when it happens multiple times a day as we stumble across the daily ups and downs of life. Most of the stressors we encounter are deadlines and traffic jams - not deadly animals.
We all face temporary stressful events -a fight with a partner, conflict in the workplace, an unexpected traffic jam making us late for a crucial meeting. Even when these challenges are from positive events, such as buying a new home, planning a wedding or starting a new job, our stress response still kicks in.
Eventually, this constant state of stress takes a serious toll. That's because stress is cumulative and being under chronic, or prolonged stress means our body is never fully able to recover from the changes brought about by the stress response. Instead of returning to a mental and physical state of equilibrium, we are always running on an underlining frequency of stress.
What happens when it starts to feel like each day is simply an exercise in bouncing from stressor to stressor with no relief in sight? We have now entered the chronic stress zone.
Mental, physical and emotional fatigue set in when we begin to live in a prolonged state of stress. We are in a constant state of "reaction/deflection". Not only does our body not have a chance to recover from isolated stressful events, it becomes even more sensitive and easily triggered to react to other stressors.
If we spend enough time in a state of chronic stress our thinking becomes distorted. Our brains literally don't operate the same way under chronic stress. We can become anxious or depressed and have problems with memory retention. We can become so hyperfocused on small details that critical thinking, long-term planning, and objective rationalization become difficult.
THE PHYSICAL COSTS OF CHRONIC STRESS
Chronic stress not only takes a toll on us mentally, but the physical costs are high as well.
Tension headaches, fatigue, disturbed sleep patterns, high blood pressure, weight fluctuations and digestive problems are just a few of the physical problems that we experience when we are living in a state of constant, prolonged stress.
Additionally, chronic stress can cause altered menstrual cycles in women, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a lowered immune system and can contribute to long-term health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.
WHAT IS STRESS MANAGEMENT?
Stress management is simply a combination of techniques, practices and thought patterns that help us avoid living as though there are bears around every corner.
Effective stress management techniques include meditation, journaling, learning to recognize and sidestep triggers, forcing ourselves to establish good sleep and exercise patterns and changing the way we "talk" to ourselves.
In a nutshell, effective stress management is simply utilizing a set of coping tools to deal with stressful situations. By sharpening our stress management skills, we can reduce our physical response to stress and speed our recovery from stressful events.
Practicing good stress management is essential whether stress is positive like planning a wedding, or negative like going through a divorce.
The reality is that there is no such thing as a stress-free life - unless you are under the age of five! But, good stress management means that even when life is stressful - it doesn’t have to stress us out!
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN STRESS AND ANXIETY
We often use the terms "anxiety" and "stress" interchangeably. Many of the symptoms of anxiety such as rapid breathing or increased heart rate are a part of the stress response. Anxiety itself can be a source of stress - and living under prolonged stressful conditions can lead to anxiety. And depression is often linked to both chronic stress and anxiety. But, despite the ways that the two overlap, they are not the same. It's important to understand the difference between the symptoms of anxiety related to stress, and an actual anxiety disorder.
The stress response is a very specific physical response caused by clearly identified events or situations.
We all experience occasional and short-lived feelings of anxiety, especially when faced with stressful events. But, unlike the fleeting symptoms of stress-related anxiety, an anxiety disorder is a serious and treatable mental illness.
Anxiety disorders can range from mild to debilitating and come in many forms including social anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, and generalized anxiety disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the U.S. and affects more than 19% of adults and nearly 32% of teens. Women are nearly twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder.
If anxiety is significantly impacting your daily life and you think you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, the first step is seeking professional mental health treatment. The good news is that there are a wide range of effective treatment options.