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The Science of Stress: Realizing We Are Not Alone

Post Author: Melissa Garafola
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In 2019, I visited the Ontario Science Centre and was able to attend their award-winning program, “Mental Health: The Science of Anxiety.” Initially, I remember being impressed that they were openly tackling that vital topic. As I sat down, I was given a clicker to share some responses during the presentation. Immediately, I felt my heart pound in my chest. I could feel my palms begin to sweat and noticed the all-too familiar sensation of butterflies in my stomach. What responses would I need to share? Would they be personal? Would they be public? Then, everything changed. The presenters asked the audience a simple, seemingly insignificant question. Little did I know, it would be a profound moment that I would never forget. We were asked, “How often do you feel anxious?” The possible answers were “every day,” “some days,” “monthly,” and “yearly.” The audience members glanced at one another, afraid to answer. My thumb toggled between the buttons of the clicker, wondering which answer I should choose. Should I answer honestly, or answer to align with societal norms? I chose to click with my heart. When the results appeared on the screen, the audience audibly breathed a sigh of collective relief. A weight had been lifted. 90% of the audience stated that they felt anxious some days or every day (I was a member of the 45% of individuals who shared that they felt anxious every day, something that I am now proud to admit because it makes me beautifully human). Members of the audience smiled at one another, now possessing the invaluable and comforting knowledge that they were not alone. This single question united us in our common humanity and normalized our feelings of stress and anxiety, something that is sadly lacking in today’s society.

 

Before we go any further…

First, we need to define a few terms and make some important distinctions. The terms stress, fear, anxiety, and worry, are often used interchangeably. When you combine that with even more terms like acute, chronic, and clinical, it becomes a lot for our brains to manage. The New York Times addresses this uncertainty nicely in their February 2020 article, “The Difference Between Worry, Stress and Anxiety.” They asked Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and author, and Luana Marques, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, their thoughts and came up with some insightful takeaways. Worry occurs in our minds. It is when we dwell on negative thoughts or uncertain outcomes. A little bit of worry can be productive and help to calm us down, but we can also get stuck in our worries, creating the opposite effect. On the other hand, stress is in our bodies. It is a physiological response that begins as a result of a stressor, which is any event or experience that causes stress. Do you see where someone could get turned around in these definitions? Don’t worry, I will translate. Basically, an event occurs (bear attack, traffic jam, test, pandemic, etc.) that triggers changes in our bodies (increased heart rate, sweaty palms, increased breathing — more on these changes later). Acute, or quick, stress can be good for you, both to protect us and to make us more active and productive. But just like with worry, chronic, or long-term, stress can cause a cascade of health issues (more on that later as well). Fear not, I didn’t forget about fear. According to “fearologist” Mary Poffenroth, stress and fear are the same thing! However, even though they mean the same thing, she has found that the word we use matters for our perceptions – successful people tend to use the words “fear,” afraid,” or “scared” to describe their stress response, whereas others use the term “stressed.” If you’re interested, I recommend listening to her two-part Fearology episode of the podcast, “Ologies.” Though, fair warning, there is a lot of inappropriate language and references. 

Now, combine those uncertain thoughts with physical changes in your body, and my friend, you’re experiencing anxiety. Anxiety has a cognitive part (worry) and a bodily response (stress), which means we experience anxiety in both our minds and our bodies. Except, here there doesn’t always need to be a clear stressor. Feeling anxious is a COMPLETELY NORMAL part of everyday life, but there is a difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder.

We will go into a lot of different strategies in these posts that can help with mild anxiety, but if you find your anxiety doesn’t respond to these types of techniques, or affects your daily functioning or mood, explore talking to a mental health professional. They will be able to examine your own individual experiences and provide tools and strategies to help. A psychologist can also help to determine whether you have an anxiety disorder. While I am not qualified to make any such diagnoses, I can assure you that you would NOT be alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults”, or 18.1% of the U.S. population every year. Looking over a lifetime, the National Institute of Mental Health found that an estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO), states that 1 in 13 suffers from anxiety disorders. 

Now that we have established what all of these monsters under the bed mean and their commonality, it’s time to surround ourselves with the security blanket of science! If you’re anything like me, knowing the science behind our feelings helps to understand them. Stay tuned for our next “Science of Stress” post, where we will be exploring what is actually going on in our brains and bodies when we experience stress. 

 

Want more? Check out our full Science of Stress series

 

Read the Science of Stress: Understanding Your Stress Response

Read the Science of Stress: Helpful Strategies

 
Stay connected! Be sure to subscribe to Down to a Science— The Official Blog of the Connecticut Science Center and follow us on social media.

 

Melissa Garafola is the Genetics Educator at the Connecticut Science Center. She develops as well as delivers Genomics programming to a wide variety of audiences. Melissa has a BA in Biology from Western Connecticut State University and a MS in Education from the University of Bridgeport. Melissa is also certified in Connecticut to teach Secondary Biology. She transitioned from the research lab, to formal education, ultimately finding her way to her true passion of informal science education.
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