With today’s fast-paced society, stress levels run higher than they ever have before. According to the University of Colorado at Denver, as many as 40 million Americans struggle with feelings of stress and anxiety in their daily lives, with rates for women running twice as high as those for men.
While a certain degree of stress can be a good thing, stress run amok can bring on any number of physical and psychological ailments, one of which is anxiety. Stress has harmful effects on the body and can actually have lasting effects on the brain’s overall functional capacity. When left untreated, stress effects on the brain create prime conditions for anxiety disorders to take root.
Stress Effects in the Brain
When confronted with a perceived stressor, the brain and body produce cortisol, a hormone that essentially puts the body’s systems in survival mode, be it through “fight or flight.” For people experiencing ongoing levels of stress, cortisol levels in the brain reach a point of excess.
In effect, too much cortisol “fries” or overworks the brain’s neural network and inhibits communications between the brain’s centers, according to Psychology Today. In cases of chronic or ongoing stress, this network becomes hardwired in a sense, keeping a person in a constant fight or flight state.
From Stress to Anxiety
The release of cortisol sets off a chain reaction of events that works to speed up most every major bodily system, including:
- Cardiovascular system
- Circulatory system
- Respiratory system
- Immune system
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, with ongoing stress, these changes place considerable strain on a person’s physical and emotional sense of well-being.
In effect, the strain placed on the body’s systems brings about a whole other set of symptoms, namely those associated with anxiety:
- Chest pains
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle tension
- Digestive problems
- Ongoing feelings of apprehension or fear
Ultimately, prolonged periods of stress predispose a person to developing anxiety symptoms, and in some cases full-blown anxiety disorders.
While not everyone who experiences extended periods of stress will develop anxiety symptoms, certain factors place some people at a higher risk than others. According to Mayo Clinic, risk factors to consider include:
- A history of childhood trauma involving abuse or having witnessed traumatic events
- A family history of anxiety disorder
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Traumatic life events, such as divorce, job loss or death of a loved one
- Illness-related stress involving worry over a serious health condition
- A pre-existing psychological disorder, such as depression or bipolar disorder
In general, the more risk factors a person has the greater the risk of developing anxiety-based symptoms during periods of prolonged stress.
In essence, stress and anxiety both develop out of disruptions in the brain’s chemical network. Over time, extended periods of stress create optimal conditions for anxiety symptoms to develop. Unfortunately, waiting for these feelings to pass can do more harm than good as brain chemical imbalances tend to get worse rather than better when left untreated.
If you or someone you know have been under considerable stress for a while and feel this condition is starting to compromise your physical or emotional well-being, please don’t hesitate to call our toll-free helpline at 800-598-5053 to speak with one of our phone counselors.