An Unnerving Roadmap: How Untreated Stress Leads to Anxiety

untreated stress

Researchers have asserted that all human emotions can be broken down into four basic building blocks. One of these basic emotions is fear, and it doesn’t just control whether a person has a nightlight or screams when they see a spider. 

As it turns out, fear’s far-reaching tendrils influence many of the negative emotions that most people experience. Namely, stress and anxiety are both manifestations for fear—this is evidenced by the fact that they occur in the same part of the brain. 

With this understanding, it’s not hard to see how unchecked fear becomes stress, which eventually spirals into anxiety. This progression is especially turbulent and damaging for college students, who are unquestionably trying to navigate one of life’s most stress-inducing experiences.

The Rising Stress Epidemic on College Campuses

Today, more college students than ever report feeling stressed. In fact, stress is the single most commonly reported impediment to academic success, and 6 in 10 college students say they have been so stressed that they couldn’t even manage to get their work done. 

It’s no surprise that the stressors that college students report are generally academic in nature. The problem is, with stress running rampant among this subset of the population, it’s starting to become the new norm. Since everyone is so stressed out, the idea of seeking help for this mental strain is becoming taboo, which leads to more serious issues. 

In 2018, more than 60% of college students reported that they had felt overwhelming anxiety sometime in the last year. This striking statistic leads to an obvious conclusion: there’s a clear relationship between unchecked stress and crippling anxiety in college students.

The Progressive Relationship Between Stress and Anxiety

Anyone who has ever experienced chronic stress can attest that it’s a recipe for anxiety if left untreated. The facts support this logical claim—and it’s more than just a mental reaction. Stress triggers the hypothalamus in the brain to send signals through a number of bodily systems that danger is present. By putting these systems on alert, the body and mind trigger a fear response known colloquially as fight or flight.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the human body is meant to experience this response, react to the danger, and then move on. The problem with chronic stress is that it never allows the hypothalamus to stop sending out that fear response to the body. In turn, the mind and body adapt to a constant state of fear, even when there is no real or present trigger. In this way, stress is an obvious stepping stone to anxiety. 

Beyond the maladaptations that result from prolonged stress, there’s also the issue of cortisol. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because it is released when a person is stressed, and it can lead to anxiety disorders if too much of it pumps through the body for too long. 

Basically, a little bit of stress is nothing to worry about. Everyone has that response to preparing for a final presentation, or while studying for an important exam. Problems arise when stress doesn’t subside, and this is likely the reason that so many college students struggle with anxiety.

what causes anxiety

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different disorders. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is one of the most common and is simply characterized by an overarching sense of worry or fear when there is no apparent reason.

About 40 million Americans struggle with some sort of anxiety disorder; these can span from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Social Anxiety to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and a number of phobias. 

The degree to which these different disorders affect sufferers’ lives vary, but once an issue reachers the point of diagnosable anxiety, it’s certainly exerting adverse power. Fortunately, there are many ways to manage anxiety, and some of them overlap with methods of managing stress, too.

Reducing and Treating Stress and Anxiety

There are quite a few lifestyle changes that make cut back on the incidence of stress and anxiety in a person’s life; likewise, there are a number of treatment options available who need intervention beyond simply tweaking their daily habits.

Limit Caffeine, Alcohol, and Nicotine Use

Particularly for stressed-out college students, caffeine and alcohol can be viewed as welcome companions. The problem is, these substances have adverse physical effects that actually make stress and anxiety worse long term.

Take Time for Mindfulness and Exercise

The stressed-out mind tends to think that it can’t lose a single second, that staying on task is the only path toward success. In reality, exercise and meditative activities like yoga can help a person burn off adrenaline and cortisol, and return to their tasks more centered.

Get More Sleep

Because stress and anxiety physically put a person on high alert, they can interrupt sleep patterns. Someone looking to cut back on these emotions should make a concerted effort to sleep normally despite that—cutting back on caffeine should help here, too.

Seek Help When Needed

Stigma is a huge reason that young people, in particular, don’t go to therapy or reach out to health care professional, but the reality is that doing so is not only cathartic but can lead to real relief. Not only can a therapist help someone suffering from anxiety talk through their triggers and unhealthy thought patterns, but they can also indicate to them whether exploring medication options might be in their best interest.

The bottom line is that untreated stress compounds into anxiety, which can take over a person’s life if untreated. Mission Harbor Behavioral Health is here to help sufferers walk back their fear to a more manageable territory.

The facilities at Mission Harbor are staffed with trained experts to best assist patients with their mental health issues. We are capable of dealing with any and all cases with a licensed staff, equipment, and approved techniques. Our mission is to help those who want to help themselves, and we support your decision in seeking help.

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