Stress and Anxiety – What These Do To Your Health

stress and anxiety

What is stress or anxiety?

Stress and anxiety are two conditions that are not entirely different from each other. Anxiety is often a product of long term exposure to stress while stress is one of the major components of an anxiety disorder. There are many ways in which anxiety and stress seem to contribute to each other. Our instinctive reactions, which are responsible for releasing our stress hormones, are governed by our subconscious minds.

Any reaction to a stimulus, real or imagined, that results in negative or even heightened feelings, may be perceived by the subconscious as a ‘threat’. Our subconscious minds, which operate on feelings, reacts the same way to any perceived threat, whether it be a verbal one or a physical in origin. Experiencing some stress or challenges can be actually beneficial as it can help us to exert more effort, physically and mentally.

The problem arises when the stress responses are repeatedly triggered and there is no corresponding ‘fight or flight’ reaction to utilize and dissipate the released stress hormones. If this happens the body and mind remain in a state of agitation and this is when we feel anxiety and stress.

If this scenario is recurring and ongoing, the stress can become chronic and when stress and anxiety reaches the chronic stage an individual can expect to suffer from its deleterious consequences. So, while incidences of stress can be beneficial, when they occur repeatedly with no resolution the results can also become long-lasting and harmful to a person’s overall health.

How Stress Impacts the Brain

In order to understand how stress changes the brain, we must first understand how our body’s limbic system functions. The limbic system consists of the hippocampus, cingulate cortex and amygdala. Experts refer to the limbic system as the “anxiety” switch. This is where the emotions and drives are regulated. A human’s desire for food, desire to be the best, to be loved, to be appreciated and to be special are all being controlled by the limbic system. It is also the reservoir of other emotions such as fear, pain, anger, happiness and pleasure.

When an individual experiences an incident or behavior that thwarts their effort to achieve pleasure or fulfill their desire, the limbic system also works to help prevent them from experiencing pain or sadness, then and in the future.

It does so by repressing negative feelings relating to the current incident while encouraging the individual to repeat those acts that promote pleasurable feelings and to avoid those that incur emotional pain. People who are successful in coping with their negative feelings are those whose limbic system is functioning at its best. It enables them to react to stress well.


When Stress Harms the Limbic System

However, there are often times when a person’s limbic system is compromised, which will more likely to happen if the body is constantly barraged with highly stressful events. Once the limbic system is compromised, a misfiring of neurotransmitters in the brain can occur.

In turn, inappropriate responses to stressful events will manifest as a result of distorted reactions and damaged sensory perceptions that are taking place inside the brain. Unfortunately, if these distorted patterns of responses become chronic, the person’s endocrine, immunological and neurological systems will also experience some abnormalities. In short, anxiety or depression will now start to develop.

Ongoing studies indicate that stress develops into anxiety due to the following reasons:

Inability to cope well

The inability to deal with life’s pressing issues can cause stress. Prolonged exposure to these adverse situations may lead to the development of a chronic condition if one has poor coping mechanisms. If left unchecked, chronic stress may later develop into an anxiety disorder.

If a person continually relies on alcohol to be able to get through tough situations, they will eventually diminish their ability to properly cope with stress. This is because alcohol only serves to numb the reactions to stress and if this becomes habitual the mind will become dependent on this process of numbing. This will then make a person more inclined to lose their natural ability to cope with stress, thereby paving the way for the onset of anxiety disorder.

Hormonal issues

When an individual is battling with highly stressful issues in life for an extended period of time, there is an increasing risk that their mind and body will experience changes that could adversely impact the proper functioning of neurotransmitter hormones. In other words, the body will become less capable of producing the required brain chemicals and other hormones, at the right time and in the right amounts. When this occurs, physical and mental problems that contribute to the development of anxiety disorder will become more prominent.

Negative thoughts

Experiencing constant bouts of stress will often lead to negative thoughts which ruminate in the mind day and night and increase a person’s risk of suffering from anxiety disorder.

Experts agree that persistent stressful thoughts can cause significant changes in a person’s brain chemistry and overall health, even if not accompanied by external events. Unfortunately, these changes can also further diminish the ability to cope with traumatic events and other stressful issues in the future.

Traumatic events

PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition experienced by a person who has experienced a traumatic event or events that caused extreme stress. The experienced is too much for them to contain or overcome at the time of the incidents. The profound impact of this stress and its subsequent triggers was powerful enough to trigger the development of an extreme anxiety disorder.

Your Brain on Stress and Anxiety

Stress is the way our bodies and minds react to something which upsets our normal balance in life. Stress is how we feel and how our bodies react when we are fearful or anxious. Some level of stress has some upside to mind and body function to enable us to react in a positive way. Too much stress though, is both harmful to the body and our performance. How much is too much? Well, that depends... on you and how you respond.

It is essential to know how our brain responds to the stimuli which trigger an anxiety response so that you are equipped to deal appropriately with anxiety.

(Learn four simple brain hacks to overcome performance anxiety:

Let me highlight the key areas of your brain that are involved, and then I will explain what happens inside the brain.

The Thalamus is the central hub for sights and sounds. The thalamus breaks down incoming visual cues by size, shape and colour, and auditory cues by volume and dissonance, and then signals the cortex.

The cortex then gives raw sights and sounds meaning enabling you to be conscious of what you are seeing and hearing. And I'll mention here that the prefrontal cortex is vital to turning off the anxiety response once the threat has passed.

The amygdala is the emotional core of the brain whose primary role is to trigger the fear response. Information passing through the amygdala is associated with an emotional significance.

The bed nucleus of the stria terminals is particularly interesting when we discuss anxiety. While the amygdala sets off an immediate burst of fear whilst the BNST perpetuates the fear response, causing longer term unease typical of anxiety.

The locus ceruleus receives signals from the amygdala and initiates the classic anxiety response: rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure, sweating and pupil dilation.

The hippocampus is your memory centre storing raw information from the senses, along with emotional baggage attached to the data by the amygdala.

Now we know these key parts, what happens when we are anxious, stressed or fearful?

Anxiety, stress and, of course, fear are triggered primarily through your senses:

Sight and sound are first processed by the thalamus, filtering incoming cues and sent directly to the amygdala or the cortex.

Smells and touch go directly to the amygdala, bypassing the thalamus altogether. (This is why smells often evoke powerful memories or feelings).

Any cues from your incoming senses that are associated with a threat in the amygdala (real or not, current or not) are immediately processed to trigger the fear response. This is the expressway. It happens before you consciously feel the fear.

The hippothalmus and pituitary gland cause the adrenal glands to pump out high levels of the stress hormone coritsol. Too much short circuits the cells of the hippocampus making it difficult to organize the memory of a trauma or stressful experience. Memories lose context and become fragmented.

The body's sympathetic nervous system shifts into overdrive causing the heart to beat faster, blood pressure to rise and the lungs hyperventilate. Perspiration increases and the skin's nerve endings tingle, causing goosebumps.

Your senses become hyper-alert, freezing you momentarily as you drink in every detail. Adrenaline floods to the muscles preparing you to fight or run away.

The brain shifts focus away from digestion to focus on potential dangers. Sometimes causing evacuation of the digestive tract thorough urination, defecation or vomiting. Heck, if you are about to be eaten as someone else's dinner why bother digesting your own?

Only after the fear response has been activated does the conscious mind kick in. Some sensory information, takes a more thoughtful route from the thalamus to the cortex. The cortex decides whether the sensory information warrants a fear response. If the fear is a genuine threat in space and time, the cortex signals the amygdala to continue being on alert.

Fear is a good, useful response essential to survival. However, anxiety is a fear of something that cannot be located in space and time.

Most often it is that indefinable something triggered initially by something real that you sense, that in itself is not threatening but it is associated with a fearful memory. And the bed nucleus of the stria terminals perpetuate the fear response. Anxiety is a real fear response for the individual feeling anxious. Anxiety can be debilitating for the sufferer.

Now that you know how anxiety happens in your brain, we can pay attention to how we can deliberately use our pre-frontal cortex to turn off an inappropriate anxiety response once a threat has passed.

Background Music: My Elegant Redemption by Tim McMorris.

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