Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat.  Obviously, these two states overlap, but they also differ, with fear more often associated with surges of autonomic arousal necessary for fight or flight, thoughts of immediate danger, and escape behaviors, and anxiety more often associated with muscle tension and vigilance in preparation for future danger and cautious or avoidant behaviors.  Sometimes the level of fear or anxiety is reduced by pervasive avoidance behaviors.” (DSM 5, p. 189).  Anxiety can be a normal response to stress, but chronic stress and anxiety can have a serious impact on our physiological and psychological health.  We were born with a highly adaptive response to acute stress.  When I say acute, I mean the ability of the human body (and mind) to respond to a threat such as a tiger chasing us.  In this type of stress the body is very competent at diverting energy from storage sites and moving nutrients to where they are needed to survive the acute stress.   In Western society this type of stress most likely will never occur.  Yet we can activate this response with anticipatory threats which cause anxiety and worry; such as being late for work, thinking about a conversation that was bothersome or being stuck in a traffic jam.  The body and mind believe they are at some level “going to be or are being attacked”, and respond with the same stress response. 

The two parts of the stress response are the perceived threat or challenge (the brain) and the physiological response to this perceived threat (our sympathetic nervous system).   The sympathetic nervous system is one of two parts of the autonomic nervous system.  The other part is the parasympathetic nervous system; the “rest and digest” part of the autonomic nervous system.  For the most part they work in opposition.  When the body is or believes it is in danger it will turn off the parasympathetic nervous system and turn on the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).    “The SNS signals the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones cause the heart to beat faster, respiration rate to increase, blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate, digestive process to change and glucose levels (sugar energy) in the bloodstream to increase to deal with the emergency.

The SNS response is fairly sudden in order to prepare the body to respond to an emergency situation or acute stress, short term stressors.  Once the crisis is over, the body usually returns to the pre-emergency, unstressed state.  Chronic stress, experiencing stressors over a prolonged period of time, can result in a long-term drain on the body.  As the SNS continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a wear-and-tear on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.” (www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx).  The systems affected include the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, brain and reproductive. 

 

The precursor to the body reacting to stress, is the messages from the brain and the cascade of activity that leads to the SNS response….as stated in an article from the website www.youramazingbrain.org…

“Once your brain has decided there’s a danger, it sends immediate nerve signals down your spinal cord to your adrenal glands telling them to release the hormone adrenaline. Once released, adrenaline increases the amount of sugar in your blood, increases your heart rate and raises your blood pressure (and has many other actions).  Your brain’s remarkable hypothalamus also sends signals to your pituitary gland at the bottom of your brain, telling it to release factors that within a few minutes have travelled through your blood stream and stimulated your adrenal cortex to produce a stress hormone – cortisol.”   Cortisol is very important in your stress response – keeping your blood sugar and blood pressure elevated to help you escape from danger.   If the mind and body believe they are in danger over an extended period of time, the stress hormones can have a deleterious effect on the brain and body; causing suppression of the immune system, memory deficits, body aches, digestive problems, coronary artery disease and depression.    For many of us, we have lived at this constant high state of arousal, and it has become our new normal or our baseline functioning.  Our mind and body have forgotten what it is like to be in a more calm state. 

 

 

The good news about long term stress and the effects on the body and mind is that there are many modalities to calm the mind and the body.  The brain and body are constantly undergoing changes through plasticity and have a wonderous ability to heal.  You can consciously make daily choices that will improve the structure of your brain and the health of your body.  I will be delving into the many modalities of moving towards body and mind health in my upcoming blogs.  I will be researching, discussing different techniques to “destress” and interviewing experts in the field of “reducing stress and anxiety”.