The mind and body dangers
of stress and anxiety
It's impossible to remove stress and anxiety entirely from our lives. However, as a psychologically trained helping-professional, and as a coach concerned greatly with stressful and anxious thoughts, I'm well aware of how living constantly under very high levels of stress and anxiety severely threatens our emotional, psychological, sexual and physical quality of life and overall wellbeing.
Unfortunately, in Western culture, living almost continuously in this highly stressed and anxious state has become the norm. Why? Because, in fact, this anxiety is often deliberately created to make us all feel more insecure and vulnerable by the various political, financial, corporate, advertising, commercial, social media, mainstream media, high tech, educational, law enforcement and other institutions which form the structure of our modern-day worlds.
Add to this the self-imposed anxiety and stress that we often uncritically accept in order to remain as someone’s sexual or relationship partner, or member of a family, friendship, social (media), or work colleague group. We also, very frequently, create intense personal stress and anxiety by accepting other people’s political, social and sexual attitudes and concealing our true feelings, beliefs, sexual and social needs and sexual and social lifestyle preferences, in order not to rock the boat.
This is even more hazardous to wellbeing when living under the uncertainty of either a current-day, or a future, still unknown, climate change and global health pandemic-related threat to personal safety or life. Living in this anxious and stressful response state for weeks, months, or even decades at a time is highly dangerous; it's simply not something that our health can cope with.
So, why do people or institutions create such stress and anxiety for others? Because, feeling anxious and insecure makes us more receptive to being compliant, obedient citizens, sexual partners, work colleagues, etc., and equally mindless unquestioning consumers of goods, services and social media. Anxiety and insecurity make us feel afraid or too vulnerable to question others, or to make strong individualistic statements on our own behalf, and lead us into making the decisions that benefit others rather than the decisions which are right for ourselves.
Not surprisingly, within any or all of this above, our mind and body processes move into a permanent state of stress and anxiety, where we lose the ability to relax and switch off the stress response. From this point on, at various points in life, our minds and bodies will suffer very, very seriously indeed as a result of such stress being ignored.
Additionally, stress and anxiety also adversely affect how long we live, because, through causing sub-optimal gene expression, they create intense biological damage to our cellular structure, increasing the chances of unwanted and dangerous cellular mutations (such as cancer) to develop.
actually suffering stress and anxiety?
When we feel stressed or anxious it's because we feel out-of-control and threatened by one or more aspects of our life. This could be due to pressure at work, unachieved ambitions, burnout, frustration with life, unsatisfactory relationships or career, sexuality or relationship worries or problems, fears/anxieties, low self-esteem, insecurities, challenging family circumstances, or psychological and physical health issues of oneself or others. We can certainly also add to these, climate change and other environmental crises, war, terrorism, international threats, personal trauma, financial problems, unemployment, voluntary or forced migration, religious or racial/xenophobic intolerance, bullying, or an infinite number of other possible causes.
In the ordinary course of events, our minds and bodies are designed to operate with the relaxation response (the Parasympathetic Nervous System) in operation. This is the function within our autonomic nervous system that regulates the health-giving aspects of our daily life, such as favourable gene expression, digestion, healing, growth, sexual response, reproductive capability, etc. Ideally, for the least stressful, least anxious, most intelligent, best decision-making and most fulfilling sexual relating, longest living and healthiest life possible, we would be functioning with this system in operation the vast majority of our life. However, for most of us in the modern Western world, this is not what our lives work out like at all.
Instead, when we are anxious and stressed (which, for most of us now, is almost all of the time) we move, immediately, into the emergency mode and the stress response (Sympathetic Nervous System) is activated. This instantaneously floods our bodies with extremely powerful agents such as the steroid hormone cortisol, the neurotransmitter adrenaline and euphoria creating endorphins. Nature designed this "Fight -- Freeze -- or Flight" system to help us to stay on high tension alert and on-edge for immediate life-saving action in order to cope with, and survive, short-term desperate emergencies in our lives. Having all of these emergency response chemicals pumping us up physically and psychologically, and flooding through our physical structure, actually impedes other processes -- such as the digestive, immune, mind-body calming processes, sexual arousal and reproductive functions -- that are designed to help us live healthily over the longer term.
Physiological effects of stress and anxiety are many and varied, and can also be very mysterious. For example, during a period of intense anxiety and stress between 2000-2006, related to childhood sexual abuse by her father decades earlier, my life-partner Lynne-Marie suffered multiple and widespread disfiguring dermatological outbreaks. Even one of London's foremost dermatology specialists and hospital biopsies could not identify what these strange and worrying spots and rashes were, and laser treatment and medications failed to cure the issue! As the anxiety disappeared, so did the spots and rashes, and her skin returned to normal. However, for many people the most immediate physiological effects of serious and prolonged (chronic) stress and seriously anxious thoughts seem to be an increase in blood pressure and heart rate that remain high and simply will not reduce. Sadly, high blood pressure (hypertension) is not directly noticeable, it's only confirmable from a reading taken by a clinical blood pressure monitor.
Even very dangerous levels of stress-induced high blood pressure result in no obvious symptoms at first. In fact, I've read several times in medically published literature that for many people the first sign of hypertension is sudden death from stroke or heart malfunction. For others it may be bodily or organ malfunctions, such as kidney disease, sexual dysfunction, or many other similarly serious outcomes. Even though some hypertension medications can occasionally create unpleasant side effects, a long-term increase in blood pressure is very much a life-changing or life-threatening issue. So, if you suspect stress-related hypertension may be in your life then I would recommend you to visit your doctor, immediately! Don't sit on your hands regarding this, this is a must-do, not an option. Then, if you are diagnosed with stress or anxiety-related hypertension and begin medication, please look seriously at coaching or counselling and mind-body exercise to create a healthier less anxious and less stressful lifestyle. You may then eventually be able to reduce your medication, or, as in my own case after getting to grips holistically with many years of my own stress and anxiety, cease to need medication altogether.
in our real everyday personal
and working lives?
In everyday terms, probably the most noticeable effects of stress and anxiety -- noticed by ourselves, loved-ones, friends, and also by those we work with, or teach -- include irritability, aggression, anxious thoughts and mood, loss of sexual arousal and overall desire, forgetfulness and depression, among many others. More perceptive individuals may notice other effects, such as changes in breathing (taking short, quick breaths instead of steady, soft long breaths), becoming easily fatigued, being unable to fall asleep and or waking up during the night -- possibly with anxious feelings and thoughts. A particularly distressing effect for some people is that of anxiety-related paresthesia; strange sensations, feelings, pins and needles, tingles, numbness, in various areas of the body. These sensations can be created by anxiety alone, with no direct medical cause and - in this case - are the result of the body’s stress response flooding the neurons of our brain and nervous system with powerful hormones, chemicals and stimulants which send our nervous system’s receptors out of control. However, you will need to get such tingly sensations checked by your doctor to make sure that there is no medical reason for their appearance. You can read more here about this phenomena of stress response hyperstimulation.
Since emotions are often experienced (quite normally) as centred in the stomach area, and since stress switches down the digestive system, other effects such as diarrhoea, acid reflux indigestion, and even seriously unwanted weight gain (even obesity, over the longer term) may also predominate. We, or those around us, may also notice a decline in learning and retention of new information or essential skills. Thus, educational progress and workplace performance may decline to well below-acceptable levels. Even worse, possibly, is the way in which being stressed and anxious makes us distant, abrupt, dismissive and emotionally dis-connected with others around us, whether they are loved-ones, clients, or work colleagues. Even panic attacks, and/or periods of very worrying, and often very frightening, psychological dissociation from one’s physical environment may be experienced, at varying levels of intensity.
Perhaps the most immediately impacting effect, though, is a decreased ability to focus / concentrate, remember, analyse, and make good decisions. Why? Well, in a state of anxiety the body's stress response chemically limits our ability to "see" all of the options that may be available to us in any life or work situation. This applies whether we are trying to help someone with their homework, ride a bike through traffic, fly a jet airliner, negotiate an international business contract, sit a university final exam, teach a class, or solve a deep personal or relationship issue. When anxious and stressed we, therefore, invariably make poor personal or professional choices from the very limited range of options that we "see" at that stressful moment.
But what does the medical world think about stress?
seriousness of stress
Stress is a killer, and a severe impairment to us living happy and healthy lives. The following statement by Rudolph E. Tanzi, Harvard Professor of Neurology, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, USA, is a good summary of medical science's view of stress:
"...we know more than ever that stress, both physical and emotional, is central to the ailments we struggle with most. It leads to faster aging, obesity, anxiety and depression, autoimmune and digestive disorders, chronic pain, heart disease, cancer, and neurological disorders. Stress also produces chronic inflammation, which compromises many of our body’s critical systems, and plays a key role in Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe most important in all this: we know that we are each in the driver’s seat of our own lives, in control of our personal destiny. We know we can change our own health, and our entire life experience — on chemical, neurological, and genetic levels — through the choices we make each day. Our lives are our own to create."
It's obvious, then, that stress doesn't do us any favours, or help us at all as a long-term companion through our lives. For a diagrammatic representation of the very serious, and potentially catastrophic, effects of stress you may find this illustration interesting and informative, when looked at in conjunction with what I’ve presented above.
Stress and anxiety are obviously far too dangerous to live with. Remember that the major benefit of reducing the long-term serious stress created by these emotional states and associated behaviours, is that the lowering of your anxiety and stress levels improves not only your physical health, but also your mental health, via better emotional states and greater mental ease and comfort. All of this may result in increased ability to learn; increases in perceptiveness, long and short-term memory, analytical skills, concentration, sociability/ability to relate to others, increase in sexual arousal, increase in reproductive abilities, and good decision-making. This latter operates, of course, at all levels and across all areas of your life.
Doesn't it make sense, then, to seek stress and anxiety management coaching or counselling to decrease stress and anxiety in your life, combined perhaps with mind-body exercise to help this process?