What is stress and how does it create anxiety?
Stress can be acute or chronic, physical or psychological, even real or imagined. So what is stress, and how does it create anxiety?
Whichever type of stress you are experiencing, the effects are likely to be the same. However, different people respond in different ways, and the symptoms of stress can appear in all sorts of ways.
One thing we know for sure though, is that stress, particularly prolonged stress, impacts disease.
Another thing we know is that learning to relax is a good way to combat stress
What makes an event stressful?
Cohen, Murphy et al, in their 2018 paper ‘Ten Surprising Facts about stressful life events and disease risk’
describe four different ways of looking at the causes of stressful events.
- Adaptation – the amount of adaptation required to manage a situation. When we are required to continuously adapt, the stress accumulates.
- Threat or harm – situations in which an individual is under threat. This could be threat to identity, wellbeing, social status, as well as the more extreme threat of loss of life for example.
- Where demands exceed resources – When we are required to manage situations which are beyond our capacity, or beyond our perceived capacity. Whether physically, mentally or otherwise (financially for example) this impacts our stress levels.
- Interrruption of goals – where events stop us from getting where we want to be.
Whichever one of these approaches you prefer, the result is stress.
What is the point of stress?
Stress, and anxiety, are primitive responses that help us to stay alive. When we come under pressure for whatever reason, the fight, flight, fear networks in our brain choose a response.
This may include increasing focus, upping our heart rate, tensing our muscles and breathing faster.
These chemical and physical responses are designed to help us cope with the situation by making us strong, alert and focused, so that we can save ourselves.
If the response works, then our brains will encourage the same again, whenever a threat arises.
Some stress is helpful, but not if it keeps on happening, and we keep on responding.
When stress becomes unmanageable, anxiety kicks in. When we don’t do anything about the anxiety, it can spiral so that we get stuck in a cycle of worry and stress.