You may feel stressed out when you perceive that a particular situation, event or person poses a challenge or threat to your well-being. Your body's stress response can involve changes in emotions and behaviors as well as physical symptoms.
When the body perceives stress, it activates the sympathetic nervous system, or the body's "fight or flight" response. This causes a chain reaction of events to occur in the body, including the release of stress hormones into the blood stream, increased heart rate and blood pressure, changes in blood flow, diminished immune functioning and changes in digestion.
The cardiovascular system takes a hit every time the stress response is activated. Therefore, chronic or repeated stress can lead to cardiac and vascular damage. Specifically, chronic stress appears to lead to the development of coronary artery disease and it may also trigger acute cardiac events.
People try to cope with stress by engaging in behaviors that comfort them. Some individuals engage in healthy behaviors, such as going for a walk, talking with a friend or relying on their religious faith. Others turn to unhealthy behaviors during stress, such as smoking, binge eating or increased alcohol consumption. Therefore, an individual's behavioral response to stress not only impacts emotions, but also can impact physical and cardiac health.
The pandemic has created fear and anxiety for most people, as we continue to face the risk of illness and adjust to major repercussions to work and school learning, social isolation, financial instability and relationship problems. Our brains work hard to detect situations that are threatening. Fear reactions are registered by a part of the brain, called the amygdala. This part of the brain determines the relative importance of the threat that you face (what we call emotional salience), and it activates automatically when we see or hear about something that we consider to be threatening. The body sends the "fear" message throughout the body by using stress hormones, the sympathetic nervous system and blood circulation. As a result, your brain becomes alert, your pupils dilate and your breathing accelerates. Your heart rate and blood pressure rise, and blood flow increases muscle coordination. Some parts of the body are instructed to slow down, like your gastrointestinal system (hence your stomachaches). To make sense of the fear, other parts of your brain (the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex) help the brain interpret the perceived threat (e.g., is this perceived threat real? Do I really have to mask up?). These brain regions provide "context" and increase your capacity to decrease the amygdala fear response. Our hippocampus and prefrontal cortex together reassures the amygdala that everything is going to be safe.
Everyone has different thresholds for handling fear and stress. You can learn to effectively improve your stress management through reading and therapy approaches.
When stress and fear become unregulated, people will report that they feel distressed and have problems with daily function. This is more common than you think. One in four people have a form of anxiety disorder. Disorders of anxiety and fear include phobias, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These conditions can begin at any age, and without appropriate treatment can become chronic. The good news is that we have effective treatments that work in a relatively short time period, in the form of psychotherapy and medications.
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