Many individuals who suffer from chronic stress report being “on edge” or “keyed up” most of the time. This near-constant state of arousal is reported at times when the person should be at rest, i.e. during normal sleeping hours, while relaxing with family or friends, or even while eating or taking a shower. Certain features appear to be common to most people who share this emotional state. Let’s look at a few of the most important ones.
Emotional Stress Often Translates Into Physical Symptoms
In most instances, psychological stress caused by real adversities or by the anticipation of adversity causes the body to react in an attempt to fight the stressor, flee from it or shut it off and away from immediate consciousness. In the process of taking these defensive measures, muscles tense, the cardiocirculatory system kicks into high gear, and many non-indispensible systems (such as the digestive and sexual systems) shut down or significantly slow their functioning. Since the stressor is often non-physical in nature, this bodily mobilization of resources never quite finds its target. Over time this may wear down certain organs of the body, which begin to manifest signs of illness. High blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, erectile dysfunction, muscle spams or pain, ulcerative colitis are but a few of the more or less serious physical ailments that can be directly associated with chronic anxiety and stress.
Emotional Stress Can Contribute to Mental Disorders
Frequent stress has an augmenting and, some say, even causative effect on poor mental health. In the presence of serious stressors, such as the loss of a home or a job, or a serious physical illness, or the loss of a significant relationship, many people develop symptoms that are typical of certain mental disorders. It is debatable whether the mental disorder comes first and the stress comes next, or vice versa, but regardless of whether the chicken comes before the egg, the results can be quite the same. A serious stressor may provoke depressive symptoms or acute stress disorder. What makes a difference is the individual’s proneness to manifest a psychological disturbance either in an “externalizing” manner, e.g. with visible signs of anxiety, or in an “internalizing” manner, e.g. with the shutdown of activity that is typical of depression.
Taking the other side of the equation, people who already suffer from an anxiety disorder or a depressive disorder may feel that their symptoms are aggravated by another stressor added on top of the ones they have experienced in the past. Anxious individuals will feel less prepared to meet the new psychological challenge, and even the mere anticipation of a new threat may be sufficient to produce a panic attack. Depressed individuals, who also may feel that their personal resources are inadequate to cope with a new challenge, may not show any signs of panic or heightened anxiety and will instead further retreat into the dark recesses of depression.
Emotional Stress Is Fear Under Another Name
Psychological stressors share a common characteristic: they are caused by generally unwanted and often unexpected events or situations. Regardless of their origin, negative stressors produce a reaction of surprise and, in most cases, fear. Since negative consequences usually accompany the arrival of a stressor, and since most people are quite capable of predicting a whole range of possible negative outcomes resulting from a stressful event or situation, fear (often masking as anxiety or even anger) is the naturally occurring and logical emotion. Even in the classic case of a positive stressor such as winning the lottery, fear is not too far behind the initial moment of wild elation. Even the arrival of a large sum of money can produce fears of its loss even before the unexpected windfall lands on the lucky winner’s bank account. Stories of big winnings have often culminated in poor choices, reckless decisions, broken relationships, and ultimate unhappiness.
Regardless of its origin, a significant stressor may produce quite a significant state of perceived danger. Many people feel that they can meet the challenge, but many others may not feel up to the task because of low self-esteem, a personal history of negative outcomes, low resilience, or a pessimistic outlook on life. A feeling of emotional safety is a protective condition that helps us make better decisions, enhances our judgment, and is generally good for our physical health. Conversely, the lack of emotional safety (which may range from a mild state of anxiety to the perception that a catastrophic event is about to occur) may be conducive to poor decision making, errors in judgment, inefficient allocation of personal resources or lack of adequate self-care, and may be linked to a higher probability of physical illness.
How To Tame Fear and Fight Chronic Stress
Emotional safety is one of the ingredients of good mental and physical health that, especially nowadays, appears to be in especially short supply. How can it be increased? A good place to start is by developing better insight into our situation. Insight is the awareness not only of the content of our worries and stressors (“what” makes us feel stressed), but also of the process (the “how”) by which we attempt to manage or cope with the situation. In many cases, our coping attempts are so automatic and out of awareness that they happen without our direct control. Insight into the process can change this. There is a significant reservoir of power and energy that can be tapped by the simple act of self-observation. It is the ability to say not only, “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” but also and at the same time to be able to say, “and just look at how I am handling this right now.”
Insight into the process of coping leads to one very important moment of choice. Being able to ask the question, “Is this way of (over)reacting the only option I have right now?” constitutes a tremendous step forward from a wholly automated and fear-driven response. While it is possible that in the moment no other reaction may be possible except anxiety or depressive thoughts, the presence of insight into the process can help come up with options and alternative ways of handling the stressor. This sets up the vital, and perhaps best, way to cope with the unexpected: an initial automatic and spontaneous reaction to a stressor (which may be physical and psychological in nature, entirely human and to be expected), followed by a more intentional and not so automatic response that comes from the ability to choose between several available options.