What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?  How/ when do know if I need to seek professional help? 

Stress in a medical context is understood as a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Source of stress can be external from the environment and social situations or internal from illness, medical procedure or due to one’s psychological disposition.

The word stress is also generally used interchangeably with fear, anxiety, worry, tension, apprehension etc. Stress or anxiety is not always bad for health or wellbeing. Stress can be positive or negative. Optimal stress or anxiety can enhance performance. For example, if a student does not worry at all about examinations, s/he will not study hard and do well. But, on the other hand, if s/he worries too much about examinations and becomes ill, his/her studies will be affected.   

Stress or anxiety stimulates a part of the mid brain called amygdala, which functions as the brain’s nerve centre. All information to the brain is processed through this small organ in the brain, which is responsible for overall protection of the person. Whenever the amygdala senses danger, it will send order to the body to prepare for the “fight or flight” response, while at the same time, information is passed to the forebrain for analysis of the situation and for advice on further action.

For example, if a person comes across a bear in the middle of the jungle, his perceptual organs send message to the amygdala, which senses danger and triggers the fight or flight response. This is actually a normal protective response to an abnormal dangerous situation of facing a bear. If the person cannot run away or fight the bear and freezes, the bear may maul him.  

However, many people get into a fight or flight response even when there is no bear or dangerous situation. This is due to false triggering of the amygdala by various factors such as past memories or repressed subconscious trauma. When the fight or flight response happens frequently or persists for long time and interferes with a person’s wellbeing or functioning, we call it neurotic or stress related anxiety disorders and there are different types depending upon the symptoms. In such a situation or when a person cannot cope with or overcome symptoms, s/he should seek professional help. But, many a time, one can overcome the symptoms if one understands the problem well. 

Therefore, it is important to understand how the body responds to stress so that people can learn to overcome the effects of stress. Stress induces a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems through the autonomic nervous system (ANS). ANS consists of two types: sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). SNS is responsible for the fight or flight response whereas PNS is responsible for sleep, rest, relax, repair and rejuvenation of body. SNS is responsible for release of two hormones called adrenaline or noradrenaline, which are responsible for following physical reactions such as muscle contraction, acceleration of heart and lung action, paling or flushing, gastro-intestinal upset, dryness of mouth, tremors and shakes etc.  

Many people worry that they may have a heart attack or lung disorder when they experience extreme stress or anxiety in the form a panic attack and seek investigation to rule out heart and lung diseases. Chronic stress can also cause or influence the course of many psychological and medical conditions such as depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, poorly controlled diabetes and many other conditions. Stress management is an important skill that every individual has to learn. Mindfulness, slow abdominal breathing, progressive muscle relaxation are the basic skills one has to learn to overcome the effects of stress and anxiety on our bodies.