The physiological symptoms effects of stress and anxiety can be scary, especially if we don’t understand what’s happening to our body. By understanding what’s happening in our body when we’re stressed or anxious, and where it comes from, the effects are much less distressing. We realise that the physiological effects are perfectly normal and developed as survival mechanisms to keep us alive when we were under threat.
The trouble is that our stress responses developed in relation to external threats. They developed to keep us safe from anything outside of ourselves likely to impact us and perhaps directly threaten our survival. In ancient times that might have been a wild animal, in modern times it could be a car coming towards us that we think might not stop, or an intruder in our home.
These kinds of threats trigger the primitive parts of our brain, which are responsible for our survival. The modern parts of our brain, are much slower to react. Our modern brain can analyse and plan but it is too slow to respond when there is an immediate threat. When we’re exposed to a serious and immediate threat the primitive brain takes over with the flight, fight response; that’s all it can do.
We fight when our primitive brain thinks we can win, or we are cornered and have no choice. We will flee when our primitive brain thinks that we can’t win. In reality, fight/ flight are the same thing, like a coin that you flip. Heads or tails are still the same coin. Do we deal with our problem by running away or by fighting? Whether we choose to flee or fight the physiology is the same and are the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
The symptoms we experience when we are severely stressed are not a sign that our body is collapsing under the weight of all the stress and anxiety, but a sign that our old brain is in charge and gearing up to deal with an external threat.
- Rapid heart rate and breathing, (pounding heart and hyperventilating) – Our heart is pumping and we’re breathing more quickly and heavily, helping to move nutrients and oxygen out to your major muscle groups.
- Pale or flushed skin, our blood flow is being redirected to where we need it most, so we might appear pale. Alternatively, we could appear flushed as blood and hormones circulate throughout our body.
- Dilated pupils. pupils may dilate to take in more light so that we can see better.
- Edginess, we will feel on edge because we are in a state of hyper-vigilance. Unfortunately, we see this with young children living in violent and abusive situations, they are always looking and listening for threats.
- Confused thinking, occurs when we are operating from the older parts of our brain. This symptom is particularly upsetting for people who are stressed at work because their performance drops which make them even more anxious, stressed, and lacking in confidence. Memory can be affected in order to protect us from, particularly disturbing events.
- Tenseness or trembling. When Stress hormones are circulating throughout our body, we might feel tense or twitchy, like our muscles are about to move at any given moment.
- Nausea and inability to eat. Under threat, our body winds back or switches off the digestive stem because it uses a lot of energy. The blood supply to our stomach is reduced, reducing our appetite and leaving us with an empty, hollow squirming feeling.
Any of these symptoms can be disturbing and increase our stress and anxiety even further if we don’t understand them. The only thing that is actually wrong with us is that our body is treating our stress and anxiety as if it is an external threat rather than an internal one created by our fears and perceptions about what is going on around us.
If the threat was external, if we had to fight or flee from something, the physical activity and the sense of victory or relief would turn off the fight/fight response because our body would be flooded with endorphins and oxytocin. When the threats are internal we remain in a state of fight/flight.
When the threats in our life are internal, they are the result of our needs not being satisfactorily met. We all have five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, freedom, fun, power. When those needs are under threat; when we can’t meet them or something is happening that might take them away, the primitive brain responds in the same way it would if we were under physical attack. The primitive brain doesn’t know the difference between something that is internal or external and the only responses it has is to fight or to flee. The same physiological short-term effects or symptoms are triggered but we can’t run away from ourselves.
Long Term Effects of Stress
- An enlarged heart, coronary heart disease, caused by continual overworking of the heart.
- Muscle pain, tearing, or atrophy. In chronic stress, muscles may remain in a near-constant state of tension, which eventually leads to pain, tissue damage, and headaches. If we respond to this pain by reducing physical activity, muscles may begin to atrophy through lack of use, and obesity may develop with all its associated health impacts.
- A Compromised immune system, due to our body being continually fired up to fight infection.
- Poor brain function. “Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia,” said Dr. Linda Mah, clinician scientist with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.
- Menstrual problems and sexual dysfunction due to ongoing hormonal imbalances
The list above is in no way comprehensive. The long-term effects of stress on the body are so vast that they are outside the scope of this article. If you have concerns about your own health outcomes and how they may be linked to stress, you would be wise to research the particular condition you are suffering from.
Short Term and Long Term Stress Relievers
Most of the information available about stress relief deals with short-term stress relievers, such as mindfulness, meditation, exercise, diet etc. We call this stress first-aid and while it is useful in the overall management of stress it will generally only deal with the symptoms of stress and not the underlying causes. This short video clearly illustrates how important it is to understand what is actually causing our stress so that we can take action to address it.
The cumulative effects of constant short term stress, which are not dealt with effectively, lead to serious and sometimes irreversible physiological changes. Our online course “How to Deal with Stress and Anxiety Effectively,” helps you to further understand what those changes are, and begin the process of developing a tool kit to identify the early warning signals of distress. Dealt with early and effectively you can avoid the worst of the effects, and even if you already have long term effects, many of them are reversible with more effective behaviour.