• Denise Weller

Is It Stress or Is It Anxiety and Why Should We Care?

Before I tell you how to know the difference between Stress and Anxiety, I'm going first to tell you why you should care and why you should make it a priority to get your stress or anxiety under control!

Here are 6 Good Reasons!

1. Cortisol and Weight Gain

Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, regulates many body functions, including the metabolism of glucose, immune function, regulation of blood pressure, and the inflammatory response, among others. It's part of the "Fight or Flight" response and when faced with any crisis, levels of this hormone increase to give you a surge of energy to be able to confront, or as it may be, run from the event. Typically when the stressor passes, the cortisol levels return to normal. BUT, when the stress and anxiety exist over a more extended period of time, levels do not return to normal and have been associated with weight gain and abdominal obesity.


2. Respiratory and Cardiovascular Systems

Under stress, your heart pumps faster. Pumping faster is a good thing if you are in danger because releasing the stress hormones constrict your blood vessels and send more oxygen to your muscles. This automatic response gives you the strength you need to run for your life when you're in the woods and a bear is chasing you! But, it also raises your blood pressure.


Suppose your daily circumstances are in a constant state of upheaval. In that case, you begin suffering from Chronic Stress causing your heart to work too hard over an extended time. Your Blood pressure rises, and now you are more at risk for a stroke or heart attack.



3. Digestive System

When you are experiencing a great deal of stress, your body tries to help you out by increasing blood sugar (glucose) levels for that extra boost produced by your liver. But under extended periods, your body may not tolerate the excess glucose putting you at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.


All of this can also cause rapid breathing and increased heart rate, making you more likely to experience acid reflux due to increased stomach acid, potentially increasing your risk of developing an ulcer. As chronic stress affects the digestive system, it can also result in diarrhea or constipation, perhaps nausea and vomiting.


4. Muscular System

Have you ever noticed how tight your muscles get when you are under stress? That muscular tightness is again part of the "fight or flight" reaction. It's somewhat like the automatic tightening of abdominal muscles when you think someone is about to punch you. If they don't punch you, the muscles automatically relax. With chronic stress, the muscles never relax. Instead, they remain tight, causing headaches and overall body aches. Now, to control these aches and pains, you may stop exercising and start increasing pain medication, which is undoubtedly an unhealthy combination.


5. Immune System

Extended periods of stress hormones also weaken your immune system making you far more susceptible to colds, the flu, and other potentially serious infections. The time it takes to recover from illness or even injury can also be increased.


6. Sexuality and Reproductive System

For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle, which can lead to painful or irregular periods. If you are menopausal, it may also magnify the symptoms related to this.


In men, chronic stress can cause lower testosterone levels reducing sperm production. If stress continues for a long time, a man’s testosterone levels can begin to drop, erectile dysfunction or impotence.


The bottom line, chronic stress affects both the body and mind. When this happens, it’s not unusual to negatively impact your sexual desire.




There is typically an overlap between stress and anxiety. The terms often used interchangeably make it even more confusing to understand than it already is. But both are related to the fight or flight response, and their physical responses are also similar.


Simply put, stress focuses on external pressures that we find coping with to be challenging. It's your natural reaction to a threat, challenge, or danger, and what you experience leaves you with a feeling of tension both physically and emotionally.


When we experience a stressful situation, we immediately recognize "the thing," causing us to "stress out." Fortunately, once the external pressure passes, so generally does the stress.


ACUTE STRESS You're pulling your hair out because the boss just told you your deadline is moved up a week, your son is getting married in 5 days, and you're meeting the in-laws for the first time this weekend!

But wait, there's more.

The above example is one of ACUTE STRESS and usually not long-lasting, but there is also CHRONIC STRESS, and our bodies respond differently to each of these.

  • Acute Stress is temporary, immediate, and sometimes relatively fleeting, like being stuck behind a school bus stomping every 2 minutes when you're trying to get to work.

  • Chronic Stress is an ongoing fear or overwhelming situation in your personal life.

To better understand the difference, let's look at the brain.


ACUTE STRESS stimulates the Medulla and signals the release of several “stress hormones” which trigger physiological “flight-or-fight” mechanisms. (increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rates, and breakdown of fat and carbohydrates for energy. When the threat has passed, the body and mind return to a state of calm.


CHRONIC STRESS stimulates the Hypothalamus, signaling the release of the hormone cortisol. When this continues, the increased cortisol levels stimulate appetite, promote fat storage, and are associated with emotional changes, including increases in anxiety, apathy, and depression. Additionally, Chronic Stress can also lead to the deposit of VISCERAL FAT, the fat that wraps around your abdominal organs deep inside your body. It is fat that you cannot see and in fact, you could have visceral fat even with a flat stomach. Visceral fat is dangerous because it is related to the release of proteins and hormones that can cause inflammation. This inflammation can damage your arteries, enter your liver and negatively affect how your body breaks down sugars and fats. When you are under chronic stress, cortisol hormone levels never get a chance to return to normal.




ANXIETY

Anxiety, on the other hand, is not always so easy to identify. It is usually about something you feel threatened by or worried about and implies persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor.


But here's the rub, both can be bad if they start to affect your ability to handle your day-to-day activities and responsibilities or begin to impact your general overall well-being. If the feelings continue for any length of time, the situation can be particularly troublesome.



Now, let's compare the physical signs of stress and anxiety, and you will see they are almost identical.


(In future Self-Care posts on this subject, we will talk about steps you can take to help relieve or control your own stress and anxiety.)


Check out future posts to learn tips for controlling your stress and achieving a healthier lifestyle.


If you feel that you need some extra help to deal with acute or chronic stress, you can get find well-qualified healthcare professionals via organizations like NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness You can also reduce your stress levels by maintaining a good work-life balance. You can also learn more about anxiety and anxiety disorders at the American Psychiatric Association.


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