Stress and anxiety are two things that we are hearing a lot more about these days. More celebrities are opening up to the issues that they are facing, and there are media campaigns telling people that it’s OK to struggle and that it’s OK to ask for help. It’s become more common for employers to be sympathetic towards those who are having a hard time and who perhaps need time off for stress. Mental health services have improved dramatically, and even the vocabulary that we use to discuss things like anxiety and stress has become more inclusive.
Because the conversation has become more open, we have lost some precision in terms of how things are discussed. It’s not uncommon for us to use the terms stress and anxiety interchangeably. In the medical world, there is a difference between stress and anxiety and it is important to understand it because identifying what you are suffering from will help you to understand whether you should practice self-care, or whether you may need some more help.
What is Stress?
Stress is the response you feel to external factors, called stressors. Everyone has something that is stressful to them. For some people, having a lot of work that they feel overwhelmed by is stressful. For others, running late and being caught in traffic is a cause of stress. Struggling financially is a common stressor, and challenging situations – such as public speaking, or exams, can be thought of as stressors as well.
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Stress is your body’s response to difficult situations and situations where your normal balance is upset.1 During acute bouts of stress, your heart rate may become elevated and you may feel more emotional than normal. During periods of stress, you might experience more aches and pains, tension, and general malaise, because stress is hard on the body. Cortisol is released in response to stress, and cortisol contributes to a lot of problems, even including weight gain.
What is Anxiety?
Stress is short term. Anxiety is long term. Anxiety is a sustained disorder.2 You can point to the cause of stress, and say “I am worried about completing that project on time” or “I am worried because there are bills coming in that we cannot pay”. In contrast, anxiety is an ever-present condition. When you are anxious, you can’t face going to work, but can’t explain why. Social situations are stressful. You might go out to an event, get to the door, and turn around and go home because you can’t face being there, but you can’t explain why you feel that way. Anxiety is sometimes triggered by stress, but it doesn’t go away when the stressor is dealt with. It’s long-term, and it’s debilitating.
Stress and Anxiety Throughout Recent History
Mental health attitudes have changed a lot in the last 100 years or so. There are people alive today who remember asylums and the widespread use of the word lunatic. Batman’s Arkham Asylum is a caricature of the asylums of the early 20th century, and while it looks horrible and extreme today, if you take away the futuristic/comic book elements there is more reality in it than you might want to think about. Today, we are more open-minded about mental health and we are more likely to treat and rehabilitate than to segregate (and abuse behind closed doors).
Mental health issues are on the increase, and anxiety issues, in particular, are becoming more common. Across all age groups, there has been a full standard deviation of increase in anxiety issues between the 1950s and the 1990s.3 Even children are reporting more anxiety. There were more children complaining of anxiety in the 1990s than there were child mental health patients in total in the 1950s. Something, at a societal level, has changed, and it’s not just that people are more willing to talk about mental health.
What Is Causing The Surge In Anxiety?
It’s hard to say exactly what is causing the increase in anxiety. One thing that could be contributing is the huge changes in our lifestyles that have occurred in recent decades. Today, we live in cities, far away from nature, and we work on computers, separated from other people. We interact less with others, and we are more likely to feel isolated and alone. There’s a term that is used in Japanese culture to describe young people who are disconnected from society – ‘hikikomori’. This term is so widespread, and the issues that are associated with those young people so severe, that it is considered worthy of research by those in the mental health field.4
Society is set up to facilitate work and productivity, but the cost of that is clear. We have become disconnected from nature, and it is making us sick. Crime rates are higher in cities than in villages, and mental health is poorer in cities too.5 Humans, like all other life forms, depend on other life forms to survive. The secondary metabolites that are made by plants are important for the health and survival of the plants, but they have a beneficial impact on us as well. When we aren’t getting our “green fix” on a regular basis, we’re more likely to feel stressed, and prolonged stress leads to anxiety and depression.6
We Are Products of Our Environment
The idea that our environment can influence our wellbeing is nothing new. The term “sick building syndrome” was first used more than 30 years ago. Since then, architects have worked toward ways to make buildings brighter, better ventilated, and generally more pleasant to live and work in but they are missing one important factor. Making things “less bad” is not the same as reintroducing things that are good for us. The issue we have in cities is that we don’t have fresh air, relaxing water spaces, and living plants. Without those things, we are lacking a huge part of what is important in our relationship with nature.
Yes, it’s good to have more natural light and to have better airflow, and that may go a long way towards reducing acute stress. Encouraging people to go for a walk at lunchtime may help with the lack of exercise, but if we want to beat anxiety, then we need to take a much broader approach.
There is a growing movement towards replicating the lives of our paleolithic ancestors, in a bid to undo the damage of modern lifestyles. People are eating more naturally, exercising more, and trying to use less plastic. People are even trying to live a more “caveman” style, engaging in forest bathing to try to reap the benefits of being close to nature. The beneficial psychological effects of forest exposure are something that researchers do acknowledge.7 Even short-term exposure to forests can help to improve physical and mental wellbeing.
There Is Hope For People Fighting Stress
If you are someone that suffers from stress frequently, or who feels like they may even have chronic stress, don’t give up hope. It is possible to beat chronic stress and to get your body back to its natural equilibrium. There are many factors that contribute to stress— your job, your environment, your financial status, and your social circle for example. Genetics do play a role, but it is not as huge of a role as you might think, and your environment can affect how your genes express themselves. Changing the things that you can control— where you spend your time, what you eat, how much you exercise, and who you spend your time with, can all help to fight stress.
If you’re not well off and in a high-stress job, then try changing what you do have power over. Try to cut spending where you can so that you can save a little. That’s not always possible for those who are close to the poverty line, but sometimes even saving a couple of dollars a week can help when there’s a crisis. Try to meditate or do yoga at home to reduce stress. Cut alcohol consumption to reduce the physical stress on your body. Go for walks if you can do so safely. Try aromatherapy at home (it’s nice to go to a spa, but you can enjoy a lot of the benefits by just turning down the lights and lying down at home while enjoying a scented candle or a diffuser). Practice mindfulness, and try to find a few minutes each day just to be alone with your thoughts.
The conversation about stress and anxiety has been started, but that’s just the first step towards beating the problem. More people are aware that the issue exists, and those who suffer from one or both of those conditions can now take comfort in knowing that they are not alone. The next step is to find the cause and to start tackling the issues in society that have created a situation where so many people are so stressed that it is having a long-term impact on their wellbeing.