Stress happens when we perceive an event as disturbing or threatening. Our primitive ancestors experienced stress when they had to fight off wild animals, invaders, adverse natural events, and other threats to their survival. These days we are more likely to feel the anxiety that emerges from stress when we face overwhelming responsibilities at work or home, experience loneliness, rejection, or the fear of losing things that are important to us, such as our jobs or friends.
When we are exposed to such events, we experience what has been called the fight or flight response. To prepare for fighting or fleeing, the body increases its heart rate and blood pressure. This sends more blood to our heart and muscles, and our respiration rate increases. We become vigilant and tense. Our bodies end up on full alert – and this allows us to take action. When these anxiety-inducing conditions continue over a long period of time, however, and have a significant impact on how we live, we may begin to suffer from one of the anxiety disorders.
Research indicates that anxiety disorders are the leading emotional health disorder for women and are second only to substance abuse among men. Within any given year, it has been estimated that fifteen percent of the population suffers from one of the anxiety disorders – yet only a small portion of those who suffer receive treatment. Fortunately, treatment is available and generally effective.
Anxiety can be helpful when it prompts us to take action to solve a problem. We can use our anxiety as a clue, in fact, that there is a problem, and that we need to confront it. Public speakers, athletes, and entertainers have long known that anxiety can motivate them to perform much better. When we don’t recognize our anxious feelings, or don’t have the tools to deal with them, we may continue to expose ourselves to the causes of the anxiety – and this leads to more problems.
Prolonged anxiety is demanding on our bodies and our lives in general. The constant state of “fight or flight” may cause heart palpitations, dizziness, trembling or shaking, increased blood pressure, sweating, choking, high stomach acidity, nausea, chest discomfort, or muscle spasms. We may feel detached or out of touch with reality or think we are dying or going crazy. There is evidence that prolonged anxiety can lead to heart disease and a compromised immune system. It depletes our energy and interferes with concentration. We may become abrupt with other people and engage in emotional outbursts or even physical violence. Our relationships, and job security may be jeopardized. People who experience prolonged anxiety are more prone to self-destructive behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse, since they may turn to these substances as a form of self-medication
Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT