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Understanding stress and anxiety

Almost everybody experiences some stress and associated anxiety on a regular basis. While not particularly comfortable, these reactions can be valuable in alerting us to pay extra attention when we perform important tasks or find ourselves in high-risk situations. Sometimes, however, the stress response is triggered too easily or too intensely, causing unnecessary discomfort. In these cases, it helps to learn techniques to regulate the stress response.

As part of a blog series on managing stress during this April for Stress Awareness Month, we begin with this brief explanation of what stress is, how it is caused, how it can be recognized, and how it is related to anxiety.

What is Stress?

Stress occurs when the demands we place on ourselves, or others place on us, exceed our ability to comfortably meet them.

Much of the stress we experience is useful, and even enjoyable, in that it energizes us, challenges us, and helps us grow stronger. Think, for example, of a runner pushing herself to go a little faster than is comfortable or a retiree going back to school.

While short-term or mild-intensity stress can be good for us, prolonged or intense stress is generally not. In fact, such stress is known to impair health, happiness, and productivity.

Researchers have shown, for example, that this type of stress can disrupt the immune system and contribute to cardiovascular disease. Stress can impair brain functions such as memory. In persons with chronic pain, stress tends to increase suffering. Stress makes it harder to resist addictive urges. Intense or prolonged stress can also reduce our ability to work efficiently and decrease our sense of well-being.

How to recognize stress

Stressed by caio_triana. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Change is generally a source of stress, so be on the lookout when your circumstances change in some way. Be especially on the lookout when the changes aren’t under your control. Unwanted changes, such as illness or injury, are easily recognized as sources of stress. However, even desired changes, such as a promotion at work or a new relationship, can be stressful.

Common sources of stress include:

  • Injury, illness, or chronic pain
  • Loss of a job or other important role
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Relationship breakup or conflict
  • Work and family demands
  • Money problems
  • Traffic, long lines, and other hassles
  • Responses to stress

In response to increased stress, many symptoms can occur, including:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling anxious
  • Having mood swings
  • Feeling irritable and/or having anger outbursts
  • Feeling run down and tired
  • Experiencing reduced sexual desire
  • Developing muscle tension, headaches, stomach aches, back pain, or neck pain
  • Having problems with attention and memory

While stress sometimes leads to irritability or depressed mood, anxiety is the most common emotional response to intense or prolonged stress. In fact, stress and anxiety so often occur together that some people use these terms interchangeably. Anxiety can be experienced in various ways, including:

  • Worrisome thoughts
  • Feelings of fear, unease, or dread
  • Desire to avoid what is feared
  • Distressing dreams associated with the fear
  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Physical reactions such as muscle tension, sweating, trembling, and changes in breathing and heart rate

Unhealthy behaviors often increase in times of stress. Some of these unhealthy behaviors are performed to suppress anxiety or other uncomfortable emotions that accompany stress:

  • Overeating
  • Smoking
  • Consuming alcohol or other substances excessively
  • Sleeping too much

Other unhealthy behaviors occur because stress-producing life demands leave less time, energy, and willpower for healthy self-care:

  • Unhealthy eating or not eating
  • Not exercising
  • Not sleeping or resting enough
  • Using excessive amounts of caffeinated beverages to compensate for lack of sleep

Some stress is good for us; prolonged or intense stress is not. By becoming better at recognizing causes, signs, and symptoms of stress and associated anxiety, we can be more prepared to use the coping skills presented in the next three posts in this blog series.

Featured image credit: 24 hours sleep stress by Edu Lauton. Public domain via Unsplash.

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