Stress, Anxiety, and Panic–why do we have this?

We all hear a lot about stress–“it’s very stressful”, “I am just stressed out”, “Hey, don’t stress”.  Obviously, stress, anxiety and even panic are hard-wired into the human condition.  But why is that?

What is Stress?

Stress is simply the body’s response to something unusual or potentially harmful.  Your brain is designed to keep you alive and in doing so, you are constantly examining your environment for potential danger.  You are constantly monitoring your internal feelings for anything unusual or new.  You are on RED alert when you find anything out of the ordinary.

How does stress affect the body?

To determine all the changes that take place in your body during a stress episode, let’s look at a cat.  When a cat is startled or frightened, what does it look like?  How does it act?

stress, anxiety, panic

Starting with its eyes, let’s discuss all the bodily changes that the cat goes through:

  1. eyes–pupils change to allow more scope of vision.  If you are under attack, it is paramount that you see your enemy coming.
  2. mouth–usually the mouth will be open to allow a large intake of breath in preparation of flight.  The salivary glands will shut down and the tongue will become dry.
  3. whiskers–the facial whiskers of our cat will become fine tuned toward the approaching menace.
  4. skeletal muscles–the cat arches its back to try to look more imposing.  The leg muscles begin receiving more and more blood to prepare for flight.  All muscles clinch and prepare to run.
  5. fur–our cat’s fur will be standing straight out from the body.   This is another way to look more imposing, but it also helps the cat detect any movement nearby.  Each hair follicle will become sensitive to changes in the environment.
  6. internal organs–once frightened, the cat’s internal organs begin to slow down.  The stomach and intestines become quite slow, almost at a stand-still.  The kidneys and bladder contract to prepare for escape.
  7. hormones–every hormone in the cat’s body is now preparing for “fight or flight”; the adrenals release large quantities of cortisol which then agitates and activates many of these changes.
  8. lungs–the cat’s initial large breath opens the airway and allows the lungs to process oxygen that will be needed by the muscles in a fight or in flight.  All the lung functions are now in high gear and the cat is panting.

In all of about 2 seconds, all these things occur simultaneously to protect the cat from danger.  Now it is 2 minutes later and the danger has been assessed and found to be nothing.  Our cat’s body returns to normal and the cat begins to groom and self-soothe.

All of these things occur in humans as well.  Once aroused and fearful, the human exhibits pretty much the same thing; all these things occur simultaneously in a matter of seconds.  So you can see that stress is useful if there is danger, but if there is no danger it is unnecessary.  However, sometimes we feel there is danger when none exists–and it happens over and over until our bodies are physically affected.  Everyone experiences stress and anxiety at one time or another. The difference between them is that stress is a response to a threat in a situation. Anxiety is a reaction to the stress. (

What type of disorders occur from prolonged exposure to stress?

  • You can develop generalized anxiety disorder where you display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety-related symptoms such as:

Restlessness or feeling on edge
Being  fatigued
Difficulty concentrating                                                                                                                    Having your mind go blank                                                                                                              Irritability
Muscle tension
Difficulty controlling the worry
Sleep problems (difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless, unsatisfying sleep) (

  • You can, over time, develop panic disorder which is characterized by sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking; and feeling of impending doom.
  • Once panic sets in, you may also develop social anxiety disorder characterized by have a marked fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to feel embarrassed, judged, rejected, or fearful of offending others.  Symptoms like:      Feeling highly anxious about being with other people and having a hard time talking to them
    Feeling very self-conscious in front of other people and worried about feeling humiliated, embarrassed, or rejected, or fearful of offending others
    Being very afraid that other people will judge them
    Worrying for days or weeks before an event where other people will be
    Staying away from places where there are other people
    Having a hard time making friends and keeping friends
    Blushing, sweating, or trembling around other people
    Feeling nauseous or sick to your stomach when other people are around  (

So what can be done about this if you develop one of these disorders?

Once a disorder has been identified, there are several options for treatment depending upon which works best for you.  Therapy works (usually cognitive based therapy) but not everyone responds to therapy; medications also work but require constant monitoring by your physician and frequent adjustments may need to be made.  Your doctor will probably start out with some form of antidepressant, like Paxil.  Or, you doctor could try using a beta-blocker to control the symptoms of anxiety.  You could attend a self-help group, either in person on online.  There are various self-help methods you can use to control your stress/anxiety yourself.

Next week’s posting will be on the various self-help methods you can try and how they work to combat stress.


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