Many people have a goal of reducing or eliminating anxiety in their lives. Through groundbreaking research in the 1950’s, the average person is aware that chronic stress may lead to unpleasant health effects. Heart disease to hair loss is ascribed to chronic stress. It begs the question as to how stress differs from anxiety, or does it? Perhaps it is best to begin with a definition of terms.
Chronic anticipation of the future is considered anxiety, and if one views this future as negative and unavoidable, then it is more apt to receive the label of stress. Anxiety is often viewed as a symptom of the mind, and stress is perceived as affecting both the mind and body in a negative fashion. Anxiety may have positive connotations; such as anticipation of a wedding or performing in front of an audience. The original conception of stress segregated it into the two poles entitled distress and eustress. Distress is obvious, but eustress is a term not likely to be encountered since it was first coined. Eustress refers to the type of anxiety experienced as relatively pleasant and stimulating. Rushing home from work to usher a child to band practice may have multiple interpretations. It may be experienced as an opportunity for personal time with the child. Band practice is an enriching and stimulating activity. The situation may also be perceived as a helpless madcap dash that always seems to end with a tardy and upset child. Stress research strongly emphasizes the role of a person’s evaluation of their situation. If someone feels caught and helpless in a situation, even if they have real control, they will experience the bodily effects of chronic stress.
There does not appear to be much difference between eustress and optimistic nervous anticipation. Perhaps anxiety commonly denotes short-term nervous anticipation and eustress tends to favor a longer experience of the pleasant anxiety. Unpleasant anxiety is experienced as stressful if the person becomes convinced that they are unable to help themselves or others in a meaningful way. A perceived lack of power to effect the unpleasant situation is the most direct route to physical decline. When rodents are punished in an arbitrary fashion, shocked on a random basis, they will uniformly give up and sit shaking in a corner. A reduced appetite, weight loss and a diminished lifespan result if this torture is continued. Sexual activity in the rodent disappears, and subsequent socialization is minimal and not helpful to their survival. The key cognitive factor initiating distress appears to be helplessness-a profound lack of control.
Unfortunately, there is no research to support that a greater level of real control results in a less anxious person. If a person believes they have control over their environment, then they typically report less symptoms of anxiety than most people. Many of my patients over the years report chronic anxiety over the welfare of children and other close others. Most of these people do not classify themselves as anxious, nor do they meet the criteria of an anxiety disorder. Many of my patients worry about their jobs on a chronic basis, their health and the fidelity of their partners. Few of these patients meet the criteria of an anxiety disorder, nor are they experiencing stress-related illnesses. On the other hand, many people believe they are in control of their life, but they cannot consciously admit certain fears that conflict with their confident self-image. For example, a wealthy business owner came to be evaluated for his emotions and cognition, secondary to several stress-related symptoms. He was happy at work, which he controlled, but felt foolish and incompetent at home, which he did not control. This person did not meet the criteria for depressive or anxiety disorders, rather the chronic stress he experienced at home made him avoidant of his family. He doctor shopped to explain the hair loss, stomach troubles and irritable sadness he experienced in the presence of his family.
Perhaps the only way to avoid anxiety is to avoid living. Less anxiety is also equatable with less joy, less expectation and a diminished sense of being fully alive. The avoidance of stressful anxiety appears to balance on a person’s perception of control. The strange truth is that an easy-going homeless pauper may experience less stressful anxiety than the King of Araby! Maximizing the anxiety that enlivens and minimizing the stress that kills is a key challenge to constructing an ideal life. Please leave comments regarding this article in the space provided below.