The epidemic of stress and anxiety has far-reaching consequences for health within modern society. In the US, 77% of people say stress and anxiety have significant adverse effects on their physical health, and for 73%, it causes significant mental health issues. As it is a major contributor to depression and hostile behavior, your inability to cope with stress might affect the people around you as well. To understand why stress is so prevalent, we need to take a look at our evolutionary roots.
When our ancestors lived in the wild, thousands of years ago, their lives depended on finding the best solution for an immediate issue. To make sure they are properly motivated to take action, the brain introduced stress, or more specifically acute stress, that helped them get rid of the immediate threat to their well-being. Once the stressor goes away, acute stress does the same, and it has no lingering effects at all. But when we talk about how stressed we are, the stress we experience does not go away like that. Often it is lurking in the background, looking for something to get stressed about. This is chronic stress, and this type of stress is only experienced by humans and to a lesser degree by domesticated animals.
Causes of chronic stress come tied to the recent development of technology and civilizations and this is a fact that is worth taking a deeper look at. Although we are several thousand years away from the stone age, it seems like our brains are yet to get the memo. The evolution of the human brain has not yet caught up with modern civilization. For millions of years, our ancestors lived in an Immediate-Return Environment, where they needed to take action in the face of immediate problems in order to survive and the choices that they made had an immediate effect in their lives. However, since humans started civilizations a few thousand years ago, they needed to invest much effort and time into tasks that would only reward them at a later time, without knowing for sure if their efforts will be rewarded. Today, we are living in this modern Delayed-Return Environment, with brains evolved to deal only with acute stress and immediate rewards, feeling constantly uncertain about those rewards. Making things even worse, often we can do nothing about what is causing us stress, unlike in an immediate-return environment, where we can take immediate action to deal with the stressor. Inflammation has been linked to anxiety and depression.
When the cause of our stress is in the future, the threat exists only in our minds and we are unable to do anything about it, making us spiral into an endless cycle of stress and anxiety. Although they have similar symptoms and are often used interchangeably, stress and anxiety are not the same thing. As we discussed before, stress is a natural physical response to an external change or a challenge, often varying in severity and length. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a sustained mental health issue that triggers persistent and excessive worries. The line between these two often gets blurred, with stress triggering anxiety. Mild stress and anxiety can be managed with mindfulness practices, relaxation techniques, and physical exercises, but coping with chronic forms of both should involve getting help from mental health professionals.