How Chronic Stress Leads to Pathological Anxiety

We all experience stress differently. Some describe it as feeling overwhelmed or worried, while others describe simply feeling worn down. Stress affects people of all ages, genders, and classes, though some are more affected than others. Stress, is defined by the American Psychological Association, as any uncomfortable emotional experience accompanied by biochemical, physiological, and behavioral changes that are predictable.

It may be hard to believe, but stress can actually be beneficial. From a biological standpoint, these uncomfortable experiences are meant to boost us and provide the drive and energy to make it through tough situations. But over time, intense stress can create a myriad of negative health consequences, affecting our immune, cardiovascular, endocrine, and nervous systems.

The Link between Stress and Health

How Chronic Stress Leads to Pathological AnxietyWe all experience stress from time to time, and it helps us adapt to new situations. But when we experience constant stress, symptoms range from psychological to physical. Chronic stress, when left untreated, leads to anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, and even a weakened immune system. Studies show that chronic stress can play a role in the development of such diseases as depression, obesity, and heart conditions. In spite of this, nearly a third of patients still don’t talk to their doctors about managing stress effectively.

Of particular concern is the connection between chronic stress and anxiety and depression. People who suffer from anxiety or depression are twice as likely to develop heart disease as people who don’t have these conditions.

Chronic Stress, Anxiety, and Major Psychiatric Disorders

A recent meta-analysis by the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences found there is marked overlap in the areas of the brain that are impacted by chronic anxiety, stress, and fear, and these may explain the link between chronic stress and the onset of major psychiatric disorders such as depression and even dementia.

Chronic stress is described as a pathological state characterized by prolonged activation of a physiological stress response. In small doses, such as before an exam or job interview, this activation is normal. But constant activation leads to atrophy of the brain’s hippocampus, which plays an integral role in long-term memory. In other words, chronic stress leads to a pathological state of anxiety, which can cause structural degeneration in the brain. According to the researchers, this degeneration may be a missing link between stress and the increased risk for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Is There Hope for Those Suffering from Chronic Stress?

Some people are naturally more prone to stress than others – people who work in more stressful jobs, for example, experience more activation of their physiological stress response. Environment, genetics, socioeconomic status, and biological factors all play a role in how and when we experience stress and its side effects. But does that mean some individuals are simply doomed to suffer the vicious cycle of stress and anxiety? According to experts, the answer is no.

Stress-induced damage to the brain is not always irreversible. Patients can start antidepressant treatment and take steps to manage their stress, which will not only improve quality of life, but even increase neurogenesis in the damaged hippocampus.

Managing Your Stress

According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, nearly half of American adults say they lie awake at night because of stress. Managing stressors is essential in protecting your brain’s health and warding off chronic anxiety. Making lifestyle changes will help those suffering from stress and anxiety lead healthier, more productive lives. For starters, experts suggest removing all distractions from the bedroom and aiming for seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Go to bed at a predictable time, and follow a routine. Take televisions and tablets from the bedroom, and avoid screen time for two hours before bedtime to encourage the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for drifting off to sleep.

Behavioral changes can be challenging, so take small, manageable steps to combat stress. Physical activity has been linked to positive mental health benefits, so take a daily brisk walk to trigger feel-good endorphins. Strive for a balanced diet emphasizing vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, while minimizing alcohol and caffeine, which can trigger the stress hormone Cortisol. Consider practices like meditation or yoga, which help calm your mind.

Get Help When You Need It

Most importantly, don’t neglect to contact your health care provider if your stress or anxiety interferes with your daily living. Pathological anxiety is treatable with appropriate intervention, from lifestyle and behavioral modification to medication. Stress and anxiety may also leave patients vulnerable to drug abuse, creating a vicious cycle. If you suffer from anxiety or chronic stress, contact The Treatment Center for more information on appropriate treatment options.

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