Keith Nathaniel Partington MA (Couns & Psych), BEd (Hons) Counsellor & Stress and Anxiety Management Coach
Inverness & Great Glen Region

The mind & body dangers of stress and anxiety. Beanie2

The mind
and body
of stress
and anxiety

It's probably impossible to remove stress and anxiety entirely from our lives. However, as a psychologically trained helping-professional, and as a coach concerned greatly with stress and anxious thoughts, I'm well aware of how living constantly under very high levels of stress severely threatens our emotional, psychological, sexual and physical quality of life and overall wellbeing. This is even more so 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.

Additionally, stress and anxiety also adversely affect how long we live, because, through causing sub-optimal gene expression, stress creates intense damage to our cellular structure, increasing the chances of unwanted and dangerous cellular mutations (such as cancer) to develop.

What happens to us when we're
actually under stress?

When we feel stressed it's because our brain has perceived that we feel 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, personal trauma, income and other financial problems, employment worries, being competitive in life, voluntary or forced migration to another country or culture area, 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, 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, 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.

The most immediate medical effects of serious and prolonged (chronic) anxiety and stress are 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.

Because of this, 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. Unfortunately, in Western culture, living almost continuously in this highly stressed state has become the norm, and at various points in life, our minds and bodies will suffer very, very seriously indeed as a result of such anxiety and stress being ignored. Even the medicines available for hypertension come with, very often, unpleasant and, occasionally, quite serious side effects (as I can personally testify to), so any long-term increase in blood pressure is very much a life-changing or life-threatening issue. If you suspect stress-related hypertension may be in your life then I would recommend you visit your doctor. Don't sit on your hands regarding this, this is a must-do, not an option. Then, if you are diagnosed with hypertension and begin medication, you can look seriously at coaching or counselling (also aided, perhaps, by mind-body exercise) to create a healthier less anxious and less stressful lifestyle. Eventually you may also be able to remove the need for medication as well.

What effects do stress and anxiety actually
have in our real everyday personal
and working lives?

In everyday terms, probably the most noticeable effects of stress -- 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.

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 and / or 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 below-acceptable levels. Even worse, possibly, is the way in which being under stress 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, 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?

A medical / neurological perspective on the
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 is obviously far too dangerous for us to live with. Remember that the major aspects of reducing the long-term serious stress created by these emotional states and associated behaviours, is that the lowering of your stress response improves not only your physical health, but 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 focus on lowering and minimising your anxiety and stress levels, by seeking stress management coaching or stress counselling to achieve this, combined perhaps with mind-body exercise to help this process?

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