Stress and anxiety aren’t going away…
There was a viral tweet a couple summers ago that went like this:
Some dude just called me a pussy for putting on sunscreen. Imagine thinking you’re tougher than the sun? The fucking sun?
I’d like to adapt to the topic of stress and anxiety:
Some dude thinks he can get rid of stress and anxiety…. Imagine thinking you’re tougher than evolution? Fucking evolution?
Evolutionary psychology says that the mind has developed to serve two basic human functions: survival and reproduction.
From a survival perspective, as we will see, stress and anxiety serve positive physiological purposes related to our survival as a species.
That is to say, stress and anxiety — though generally associated as a negative — are hardwired through thousands of years of evolution.
When we attempt to reduce, or even eliminate, stress and anxiety we are fighting evolution. Fucking evolution.
What is Stress?
Stress is our body’s response to an external stressor. Physiologically, when your body perceives a threat, your adrenal system releases stress hormones to help you better fight off the threat. This is your fight-or-flight response.
Physical effects of your fight-or-flight response include increased heart rate, faster breathing, increased muscle tension, tunnel vision, and slowed digestion — all of which are your body’s preparation to use increased strength or speed and to prepare itself in case of injury.
This response has been developed through biological evolution. In our more primitive states throughout pre-modern society, these biological responses were necessary for survival.
However, as modern security and luxury have rendered these responses obsolete, the prevailing sentiment is that stress no longer has utility.
In other words, while stress used to be necessary for survival, now we feel that it is unnecessary, or even detrimental, to our livelihood and wellbeing.
There are many studies that tie chronic stress to increased risk for cardiovascular disease, anxiety, and depression, or increased likelihood of the adoption of bad habits to cope with stress, such as smoking or overeating.
We view stress as bad, and chronic stress as even worse. The World Health Organization has said stress has become a “Worldwide Epidemic”. And the Center for Disease Control reports 110 million people die every year as a direct result of stress.
That’s 7 people every 2 seconds.
Certainly, with these figures, it would appear to be true that stress is bad and must be mitigated.
Psychologists and wellness experts alike say to reduce or eliminate stress as best as possible. Suggested tactics include avoiding caffeine, exercising, eating a healthy diet, getting more sleep, learning to say “no”, and more.
The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety
Making matters worse is the impact stress has on anxiety.
While the terms “stress” and “anxiety” are often used interchangeably, and while many of the symptoms overlap, they are not the same experiences and have clearly distinctive characteristics.
Firstly, stress is an external reaction — a demanding boss, an upcoming exam, a hungry bear rapidly approaching your campsite are all external stressors that induce the physiological reactions associated with stress.
However, stress is a temporary experience and goes away after the external stressor has been eliminated. After we reach our work deadline or take our exam, the stress subsides.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a sustained, internal reaction. While stress is caused by, and focuses on, a specific stimulus, anxiety is characterized by needless worry in situations that are not threatening.
Chronic stress, therefore, can be anxiety-inducing. As we lack reprieve from external threats, sustained threats can create comparable responses and symptoms even when the threats are non-existent.
Stress is caused by an existing stress-causing factor…[while] anxiety is stress that continues after the stressor is gone.
Moreover, today’s stress triggering our fight-or-flight response — work deadlines, exams, social pressures — are not life-threatening, as the origins of the external stimuli inducing the stress response once were.
The Upside of Stress
While stress appears not to serve us well today — as we react with the same vigour to non-threatening stimuli as our predecessors reacted to life or death situations — we can reframe our views of stress, and our emotional response to our body’s innate stress responses, to make stress better work for us.
Health psychologist, author and speaker Kelly McGonigal is fighting to change the perception of stress. In her book, The Upside of Stress, and her TED Talk, “How to make stress your friend”, McGonigal argues that the key to dealing with stress is to change your perception of stress and the purpose it serves.
McGonigal cites a 2012 study from the University of Wisconsin that measured the impact of the perception of stress. The study found that those who experienced high levels of stress but did not view stress as harmful had the lowest risk of dying — including people who experienced lower levels of stress.
While we normally view stress responses as anxiety or signs that we aren’t coping well with pressure, a subsequent study from Harvard University asked instead to view these signs as helpful and preparing the body for higher performance.
When participants reframed their views of the stress response, not only did they report feeling less stressed, less anxious and more confident, their physical stress response changed, as well. In a typical stress response, our blood vessels constrict — to reduce blood flow in the event of injury. However, in this study, while their heart remained pounding, participants blood vessels remained relaxed.
The cardiovascular profile of participants who reframed their views of stress looked more like moments of joy or courage than moments of stress.
Does Anxiety Have Utility?
If the evolution of the stress response protected us from external threats and can improve our performance when we perceive our body’s response positively, it raises a question: does anxiety have utility? After all, anxiety is not a response to an external threat, but an internal, needless worry.
…all anxiety disorders have one thing in common: persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening.
A theory of evolution and anxiety argues, though anxiety is characterized by excessive fear in non-threatening situations, that worrying about danger forces people to take fewer risks and seek safety. If you’re constantly fearful of being eaten by a bear — whether the threat is imminent or not — you are going to avoid situations in which the likelihood that you get eaten by a bear is increased.
Excessive worry is seen as an overreaction to fear in modern society, where daily life-threatening experiences are few and far between. However, it is actually an advantageous and socially desirable trait that gave our ancestors an ability to survive and reproduce.
We now understand the stress response to have utility, and that its negative physical effects can be mitigated through a positive perception of stress. If sustained stress can lead to anxiety, certainly an improved relationship with stress will have an improved relationship with anxiety.
The problem with anxiety exists when we get caught in an endless, negative feedback loop — especially where our feelings of anxiety lead to frustration, anger, stress or more anxiety about the feelings of anxiety we are having.
We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
However, recognizing and acknowledging that anxiety is just a feeling — a hardwired emotion that had evolutionary advantages but now may no longer serve us well — can help to prevent us from getting caught in the negative feedback loop.
Anxiety may be an inevitable emotion, especially if one has a greater likelihood to experience anxiety. How we react to and receive anxiety could make all the difference.
Mindfulness practice is centred around a neutral acknowledgement of anxiety, rather than treating it as a feeling that must be dealt with or suppressed. It takes practice to undo the habit (of reacting to anxiety negatively), yet with practice we can reframe and create a more positive relationship with anxiety.
So, when an anxious thought comes, we see it, we let it go… no matter what the thought or feeling is, however we feel about it, we don’t block it, we allow it to arise, embrace it and then it passes away.
Practical Tips to Changing Our Relationship With Stress and Anxiety
It is important, firstly, to remember that stress and anxiety are human emotions, developed and naturally selected from thousands of years of evolution.
To feel stress and anxiety is to be alive.
With knowledge of the evolutionary origins of these feelings, we can re-frame and train our mindset accordingly, through greater awareness and practice.
Additionally, explicit exposure to our fears can be a powerful tool for overcoming the associated stress or anxiety. Creating a “fear ladder” is one such exercise.
In this exercise, identify a fearful situation giving you anxiety — overcoming that fear is a level 10. Then, identify 9 smaller, incremental steps you can take to get closer to the fear atop the ladder. Through increasing levels of exposure, you overcome your fears.
If your fear is writing and publicly publishing on Medium, your fear ladder may look something like this:
- Write down ideas for posts you’d like to share
- Draft a post in Word or Google Docs
- Read other Medium writers clap for a post you enjoy
- Read other Medium writers and comment on a post you enjoy
- Read other Medium writers and share one post you enjoy privately, to a friend or loved one
- Edit your post in Word or Google Docs
- Share your edited draft privately, to a friend or loved one
- Move your draft to Medium
- Publish your post to Medium
- Share your published post publicly to your network
Another example is fear-setting. This exercise comes from author, podcaster, investor and human guinea pig Tim Ferriss’ TED Talk “Why you should define your fears instead of your goals”.
Tim outlines fear-setting in three phases:
The first phase when attempting to overcome an anxiety-inducing situation is defining the worst thing that may happen. Then, addressing how you may prevent or decrease the likelihood of that thing happening, or how you may repair the situation if the worst-case scenario did happen.
Secondly, ask what might be the benefits of an attempt or partial success of overcoming the anxiety-inducing situation?
And lastly, identify the cost of inaction — emotionally, physically, financially — across six months, one year and three-year time horizons.
While some thing may be fearful and giving you anxiety, the tactical approach to incremental exposure or addressing the cost of inaction can greatly facilitate your improved mindset and perception of stress and anxiety, thereby mitigating its negative effects.
Fighting with stress and anxiety is fighting evolution. Fucking evolution.
While these emotions can be reduced, they aren’t going away — they’re hardwired into us as humans. Reframing our perception of stress and anxiety can make all the difference, as can leveraging tactical practices or exercises.
Stress and anxiety are modern day killers, but that’s not their original, biological intent. Time to make these emotions work better for us again.