Part2: Understanding stress and anxiety, and its role in mental health

To read part 1 of our series on Mental Health During COVID-19, please click here.

Stress is a physical or emotional pressure or tension that we feel.  In the event that we face an imminent threat or danger, our bodies interpret it as stress and react.  As we sense the stress as anxiety, our body responds by putting us on alert of a possible danger. Our bodies elicit our fight, flight or freeze (F3) response in order to protect us.[i]  It is our natural survivor instinct.  Once the danger passes, the stress is removed, and our bodies should return to a resting state.

This instinct has come in handy over thousands of years and has been crucial to our survival.  For example, if we are walking in the wilderness and see a bear, our response kicks in and we may freeze until the bear continues on its way.  If the bear proceeds to approach and attack us we are likely to fight the bear.  If we have the opportunity to escape, we will run (flight response).  This in no way suggests how we should act during a bear encounter; I will save that explanation for wildlife specialists.

Stress becomes problematic when it is ongoing and constant.  The surge of hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, meant to protect us in dangerous situations, begins to take a toll on our physical and mental health. The long-term effects of elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels can result in many symptoms, diseases and mental illnesses: weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression.  [ii],[iii]  The way we respond to stress is the result of both genetics and life experiences.[iv]

Stress becomes problematic when it is ongoing and constant.  The surge of hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, meant to protect us in dangerous situations, begins to take a toll on our physical and mental health.

Anxiety can be described as the body’s normal response to stress to alert us of possible danger.[v]  It can include a feeling of unease, fear, apprehension or worry. In small amounts, anxiety is also a normal response. For example, prior to a test or a performance, we may be nervous and worried about how we will do. However, if for you, worry, fear, or unease last for months and begin to interfere with your daily activities, it can become unhealthy. This may be considered an anxiety disorder and you should not delay in seeking advice from your family physician as soon as possible.  You may also consult several resources that we provided in our last article.[vi]

There are many approaches to treatment: therapy, pet therapy, exercise, proper nutrition, mindfulness, meditation, prayers, medication[vii]. You can combine several treatments for a more holistic approach. There are even apps that can assist you with meditation and exercise if you need that added help.  I recommend you discuss with your doctor and find together the best approach for your particular situation.

Do you notice that you are stuck in a vicious circle of dread, worry and fear? Be sure to read our next article: I will be sharing a few things that helped me in my own personal journey with an anxiety disorder, which was discovered about 5 years ago.  Many of these tips may also be helpful to you.  Fortunately, I got the help that I needed and am now equipped with several tools to help mitigate my anxiety and my stress.

By: Tara Grenier, M.Sc., CAT(C)
Injury Prevention Professional
Montreal General Hospital- McGill University Health Centre
Resources:
[i] https://www.anxietycanada.com/articles/fight-flight-freeze/#:~:text=F3%20or%20the%20Fight,sailing%20through%20your%20kitchen%20window
[ii] https://www.healthline.com/health/high-cortisol-symptoms
[iii] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
[iv] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2567059/
[v] https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders
[vi] https://www.codetrauma.com/mental-health-during-covid-19/
[vii] https://adaa.org/tips

 

Photo: Christopher Ott

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