Stress and Anxiety

Published September 5, 2013

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Stressed Man

I know what it feels like to be “stressed out”, but what is stress?

Stress is our body’s response to anything that disrupts our life and usual routine. The cause of stress could be an everyday event or challenge related to work, relationships, money and difficult decisions or traumatic events like the passing of a loved one.

When we’re faced with a challenging or overwhelming situation, it triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produce well‐orchestrated bodily changes. Our heart beat, breathing rate and blood pressure may go up, and our non‐essential bodily functions like our digestive and immune systems slow down.

1 This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, because it evolved as a survival mechanism enabling people to react quickly (fight or flee) in a life threatening situation like being chased by a bear.2 However, our bodies can also overreact to stressful events that aren’t life threatening like traffic jams, family difficulties or work pressure. 2

What about anxiety?

Anxiety is the feeling of fear, unease or worry often accompanied by physical sensations such as heart palpitations, cold and clammy hands, shortness of breath and nervousness. 3 Most of us experience some anxiety when we feel out of our depth or are placed in a stressful situation whether it’s before a job interview or speaking in front of a roomful of people.

While a little anxiety can be helpful in these circumstances and improve our performance, for some people these anxious feelings don’t seem to happen for any apparent reason, or continue long after a stressful event has passed.4On average, 1 in 4 Australians (1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men) will experience anxiety at some stage in their life, and in some cases may become distressing enough to interfere with their daily lives or activities. 4

What can go wrong?

While a little bit of stress and anxiety is fine and can help us rise to meet challenges and perform at our best, prolonged stress or anxiety can take a toll on our bodies and may trigger the following warning signs and symptoms:

  • Sleeping difficulties – Both stress and anxiety may contribute to sleeping problems because a racing mind is not conducive to a restful sleep. Stress causes over‐stimulation, which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. 5
  • Fatigue – Mental and physical fatigue is a common symptom of both stress and anxiety. 3,6
    This could be because a stressed or anxious body is in a high alert state, and uses a lot of energy or it could be related to a lack of sleep.
  • Lack of concentration or focus7 ‐ When we feel overwhelmed, it can make it difficult to concentrate on even the simplest tasks. Meanwhile, not being able to think clearly can often make the problems causing our stress or anxiety worse.
  • Digestive complaints – Stress and anxiety may start in the mind, but will often manifest in the body. Our digestive function is partly controlled by our nervous system, and stress and anxiety may cause problems with bowel movement, motility and sensation, and contribute to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 8

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