Stress And Anxiety: Cause And Effect

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Stress is a physics and engineering term, referring to the amount of force per square unit exerted on a piece of material. For example, a bridge with a lot of cars on it is undergoing several tons of compressive stress. If the bridge isn’t design to hold up that many cars (for example, if it is a medieval footbridge), the bridge collapses and the cars, with their drivers and passengers, fall to their death. In fact, this happened in 19th century Edinburgh, when the Tay Bridge collapsed while a train was going over it, much to the people’s eternal sorrow.

This physics-based definition of stress explains the use of the word in biology and psychology. It explains the sense in which people use the word “stress” when they talkĀ  about the mental states of anxious, suffering, struggling human beings. The word was first used in this way in the 1930’s to talk about lab animals. The lab animals were subjected to experiments that put them into situations of perceived difficulty and danger. Like a bridge holding up under the weight of all those cars, the animals had to hold up in the face of the “stress” brought upon their organisms–upon both their bodies and minds–by perceived danger to their life.

The relationship between stress and anxiety is as follows: anxiety is our bodies’ reaction in the face of stress. When we sense that we’re about to be put into an especially difficult situation, our bodies and minds must make certain adjustments. Our hearts beat faster. Our breathing becomes faster as well, and shallower. Our muscles tense up, ready to spring into action. We become more tolerant of pain. We experience a surge of energy. We become unable to focus on anything except the problem at hand. We only think of the immediate danger that faces us (and this degree of single-mindedness and clarity in our thoughts is rare for most of us).

Anxiety can be very helpful. The physiological response outlined above is very useful for keeping us out of danger and navigating tricky situations that require our immediate attention. Anxiety makes us extra careful and attentive on the highway when we are just learning to drive. Anxiety helps win in fights, and helps us flee from opponents who are too powerful.

However, these days, anxiety interferes with our lives almost as often as it helps them. Anxiety is unwanted and unhelpful in situations that do not demand the fight-or-flight response. Anxiety is unwanted and unhelpful in situations that are impossible to resolve by immediate, decisive action. For example, it does no good to be anxious about how well your presentation is going to go the next day, as you lie in your bed and desperately attempt to get some rest. Your racing heart and hyper-alertness will not help you in your bed at 1 in the morning. In these situations, anxiety is unwanted.

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