Why Stress Reduction Is Important For Anxiety Disorder Recovery

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated July 6, 2022

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Video Transcript

Ever since we first started anxietycentre.com, we have emphasized the importance of stress reduction. That’s because stress is the cause of anxiety symptoms.

If we want to eliminate anxiety symptoms, we need to reduce the cause, which is stress.

Thankfully, many people have understood this and worked hard at reducing their stress and have seen good results by doing so.

Yet, many people haven’t followed this important concept and how it contributes to a struggle with anxiety.

So, we wanted to create a video to help convey this importance and why reducing stress can make such a big difference in recovery time and lasting success.

To that end, here is our video about “Why Reducing Stress Is So Important,” especially for overcoming anxiety disorder, hyperstimulation, and their symptoms.”

Behaving anxiously, which creates anxiety, activates the stress response.

The stress response secretes stress hormones, which are stimulants, into the bloodstream when they travel throughout the body, causing numerous body-wide changes that prepare the body for immediate action.

Since these body-wide changes are extensive, stress responses stress the body.

A body that becomes stressed can exhibit symptoms of stress.

Therefore, anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress. They are called anxiety symptoms because anxious behavior is the main source of the stress that causes the body to become stressed and symptomatic.

If we want to get rid of anxiety symptoms, we need to reduce the body’s stress AND give the body sufficient time to recover.

As the body recovers from stress, it stops producing symptoms of stress.

Level One recovery needn’t be more complicated than that, other than learning we don’t have to fear and worry about anxiety symptoms.

Since anxiety symptoms are merely symptoms of stress that will subside when we eliminate the body’s unhealthy stress, there isn’t any reason to worry about them.

They will disappear when we eliminate that stress.

And since all of us can reduce stress, there isn’t any reason to worry that we can’t eliminate anxiety symptoms.

When we know what anxiety symptoms are and how to get rid of them, there isn’t any good reason to become afraid of them.

Unfortunately, many anxious people worry about their anxiety symptoms, which only adds stress, making their symptoms linger or become worse.

Having symptoms and then worrying about them is a vicious cycle so many anxious people fall into.

I know I did when I first started dealing with anxiety disorder. I understand how easy it is, especially when you have health and medical sensitivities.

However, we can change that by understanding the role that stress plays.

So, if you’ve ever wondered why stress makes such a difference, here’s why:

Regarding stress, the body has essentially two main systems:

The Sympathetic Nervous System – the system responsible for excitation and stimulation.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System – the system responsible for calming the body.

We can label them as the “Calm” and “Stress” systems.

When the body is healthy and not overly stressed, these two systems balance each other, keeping the body in a healthy balance between excitation/stimulation and calm.

To maintain this healthy balance, one system works in opposition to the other. When one is active, the other is suppressed.

For instance, when we’re stressed, the body becomes stimulated, subduing the “Calm” system.

After the stressor has passed, the “Calm” system is able to reengage, reducing the effects of being stressed.

Again, these two systems work to balance each other when conditions are normal.

As long as we behave in a way that maintains this balance, the body will keep itself in a healthy balance despite the ever-changing conditions, with one system counterbalancing the other.

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For instance, here are some of the ways these two systems work in opposition to each other:

CALM

STRESS

  • GABA (the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter responsible for calming the nervous system) increases; Glutamate (the primary excitatory neurotransmitter responsible for stimulating the nervous system) decreases.
  • Calms neural activity.
  • Calms metabolism.
  • Relaxes muscles.
  • Improves Vagus nerve tone.
  • Balances brain function and activity.

  • Slows respiration.
  • Maintains healthy digestion.
  • Normal senses and sensory perception.
  • Healthy homeostatic regulation.

  • Healthy interaction between hormones.
  • Reduces stimulation.
  • The body can calm itself easily.

  • Able to rest and sleep when we want.
  • Able to think clearly and rationally.

  • Able to contain fear.
  • Not on hyper surveillance for danger.
  • Easy to access the pleasure centers of the brain.
  • Easy access to healthy, positive emotions.
  • Builds grey matter in the brain. Grey matter is important for a healthy nervous system and cognition.
  • It takes a lot to trigger the stress response.
  • Able to easily calm and soothe ourselves.
  • Can easily feel peace and contentment.
  • Less likely to have unwanted and intrusive thoughts. If you do, you can dismiss them easily.

  • Reduced sense of urgency.
  • Easily feel settled and content.
  • Healthy sensitivity and tolerance to pain.
  • Normal short-term memory.
  • Normal concentration.
  • No symptoms of stress.
  • Thoughts focused on pleasure, peace, satisfaction, and joy.

  • Glutamate increases; GABA decreases.

  • Excites neural activity.
  • Increases metabolism.
  • Tightens muscles.
  • Decreases Vagus nerve tone.
  • Increases activity in the fear center (amygdala and others) and reduces activity in the rationalization areas of the brain (cortex and others).
  • Increases respiration.
  • Digestion is suppressed, elimination is increased.
  • Senses on high alert; super sensitive.
  • Homeostasis becomes dysregulated, causing it to act erratically.
  • Unhealthy interaction between hormones.
  • Increases stimulation.
  • The body has less ability to calm itself.
  • Difficult resting and sleeping.
  • Makes it difficult to think clearly and rationally; and our sense of danger and reactivity are heightened.
  • Less able to contain fear.
  • Makes us hypervigilant and reactive to danger.
  • Difficult accessing the pleasure centers of the brain.
  • Reduces ability to access healthy, positive emotions with emphasis on negative emotions.
  • Reduces grey matter in parts of the brain.

  • Stress responses become like a “hair trigger.”
  • Less able to calm and soothe ourselves.
  • Reduces our ability to feel peace and contentment.
  • More likely to have unwanted and intrusive thoughts, which can also seem more threatening and relevant. As well as less able to dismiss them.
  • Increases a sense of urgency.
  • Feel unsettled and discontented.
  • Pain sensitivity is increased while tolerance to pain is decreased.
  • Short-term memory is decreased.
  • Makes concentrating difficult.
  • Creates symptoms of stress.
  • Thoughts focused on danger, angst, fear, uneasiness, urgency, and discontent.

These are just a few of the many ways the Calm and Stress Systems balance themselves.

Again, when the body is healthy, the “Calm” and “Stress” systems balance each other, keeping the body healthy.

Going back to our illustrations, when we experience stress, the “Stress” system increases while the “Calm” system decreases.

As long as we’re experiencing stress, the Stress System grows while the Calm System shrinks.

One of the reasons the Calm System shrinks in response to stress is that stress increases Glutamate while reducing GABA. The longer the body is under stress, the imbalance grows with Glutamate increasing and GABA decreasing.

As Glutamate increases, the body becomes more excited. As GABA decreases, the Calm System loses its ability to calm us down when we want to feel calm.

Thankfully, short-term stress doesn’t create much of an imbalance.

When that stress ends and the body has time to recover, the Calm System slowly recovers, and the Stress System slowly decreases.

Given sufficient time, the Calm and Stress Systems eventually return to a healthy balance, and the body functions normally again.

However, this all changes when the body becomes chronically stressed, such as from constant worry.

For instance:

When we’re chronically stressed, the Stress System elevates and remains elevated, while the Calm System continues to decrease.

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An elevated Stress System will keep all of its changes elevated, as well.
For instance:

  • Glutamate keeps the body overly excited.
  • Neural activity remains overly excited.
  • Metabolism remains elevated.
  • Muscles can tighten and remain tight, stiff, and sore.
  • The Vagus nerve loses its tone, causing all sorts of Vagus nerve-related problems. Keep in mind that the Vagus nerve influences digestion, heart activity, and nervous system function, and so on.
  • The fear center of the brain remains overly active, while the rationalization areas of the brain remain suppressed.
  • Respiration can remain elevated, causing issues with shortness of breath and heart-related symptoms.
  • We can have chronic stomach and digestive issues.
  • Our senses can become super-sensitive.
  • Homeostasis becomes dysregulated and erratic.
  • Hormones can be all over the map since hormones affect each other.
  • The body can remain stimulated because the body has less ability to calm itself.
  • Consequently, we can have difficulty resting and sleeping.
  • Lose the ability to think clearly and rationally.
  • Less able to contain fear.
  • We can become overly sensitive and reactive to danger, such as we can perceive danger where we normally wouldn’t.
  • A reduction in pleasure because the ability to access the pleasure centers of the brain are suppressed.
  • Consequently, we’ll also have less access to healthy, positive emotions while having exaggerated negative emotions, including fear.
  • The stress response becomes like a “hair trigger.”
  • More likely to have unwanted, intrusive thoughts, which can also seem more threatening and relevant, with reduced ability to dismiss them.
  • Our sensitivity to pain is increased while tolerance to pain is decreased.
  • We can have all kinds of cognitive and memory impairments.
  • And our thoughts can seem solely focused on danger, fear, uneasiness, and discontent.

Again, just to name a few.

Then, when you want to calm yourself, the body is less able to because the Calm System has decreased so much.

And, when you want to feel good about something, your mind is less able to because the fear center is more active, and so on.

Because of the changes due to chronic stress, it can seem like your mind is stuck in survival mode…constantly scaring you with anxious thoughts and patterns.

Once this imbalance between the two systems has become chronic, it can take a lot of work and time to correct this imbalance.

Thankfully we can correct the imbalance between the Calm System and the Stress System, but it requires constant work and lots of time.

We have to manually retrain the body to be calmer so that the Stress System quiets down, allowing the Calm System to recover.

We do that through stress reduction and rest.

As the body becomes rested, the Calm System slowly restores, and the Stress System slowly decreases.

As the Calm System recovers, we regain the ability to calm ourselves when we want to.

But it can be a long process of recovery because research has shown that it can take four times as long to recover from the adverse effects of stress as it does to incur them.

That’s because the body needs time to recover from stress, and much longer than most people expect.

But if we continually work our recovery strategies, the body will recover in time. That’s the good news!

However, there’s another challenge to consider.

Fear, including anxiety-related fear such as worry, can quickly spike up the Stress System.

Even short-term worry can create a sizeable imbalance between the Calm and Stress Systems because of how quickly fear spikes the Stress System.

For instance, a few weeks of intense worry can create a significant imbalance that the body then has to recover from.

This quick imbalance is a common catalyst into a struggle with anxiety disorder and its symptoms.

For example, worrying about the sudden appearance of anxiety symptoms will keep the Stress System elevated, causing a further reduction in the Calm system.

As we mentioned earlier:

  • Anxious behavior creates stress.
  • Stress creates symptoms.
  • Worrying about symptoms creates more stress.
  • More stress sustains and creates more symptoms.

And so on.

The more we worry, the greater the imbalance and longer it will take to restore.

We can only reverse this by reducing stress and giving the body ample time to recover…to where the “Calm” system can regain a healthy balance with the “Stress” system.

When we reduce the body’s stress, and for long enough, the “Calm” system regains its healthy balance with the “Stress” system, and symptoms subside.

As mentioned, it can take a very long time for the “Calm” system to regain its healthy balance once the body has become hyperstimulated.

The higher the degree of hyperstimulation, the longer it can take to regain a healthy balance.

In the meantime, the Stress System and all of its changes will continue.

So, we’ll continue to:

  • Feel overly excited with a reduced ability to feel calm.
  • Rest and sleep can be disrupted.
  • Fear messages can seem rampant with an inability to contain them.
  • Can have a myriad of physical symptoms.

And so on.

These will only disappear when the Calm and Stress Systems rebalance.

That’s why passive acceptance is so important. If we keep triggering ourselves off with fear about our symptoms, that will keep the Stress System active, and the Calm System suppressed.

This is also why expecting a quick recovery is unrealistic.

The body can’t recover faster than it is able.

It needs plenty of time to restore a healthy balance between the Calm and Stress Systems. There is no quick way that can happen.

If you’ve been stressed for several months or more, don’t expect a few months of recovery is sufficient. Because it isn’t.

Your body will need a lot of time to recover and that’s providing we keep stress to a minimum.

Since stress has a profound effect on the nervous system, which is comprised of neurons – nerve cells that have an electrochemical make up – the nervous system can take far longer than other parts of the body to recover from the effects of stress. This is again why passive-acceptance and patience are required.

Nevertheless, when we reduce stress, increase rest, contain anxious behavior so that we stop stressing the body, and give the body time to recover, it will. It’s just a matter of time.

As a healthy balance between the Calm and Stress Systems restore, symptoms of stress subside.

The takeaway from all this is: if we want to feel better, be less reactive, worry less, and feel more peace, joy, and satisfaction with life, we HAVE TO reduce stress and give the body sufficient time to recover.

When the body has recovered, both the “Calm” and “Stress” systems function normally, causing a return to normal, non-hyperstimulated health.

And if we keep that healthy balance, we can maintain a healthy psychological, emotional, and physical life throughout our lifetime.

We can do that by managing our stress well.

And we can manage our stress well when we address the underlying factors that influence anxious behavior that cause issues with stress.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to attain Level Two recovery success.

Attaining Level Two recovery success eliminates issues with anxiety and the stress it produces.

I encourage you to keep all of this in mind when you are working on your recovery so that your expectations are in line with reality.

Having a realistic view of recovery can make the entire recovery process so much easier and quicker.

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Closing Comments:

1. Stressful behavior, such as anxious behavior, activates the Stress System, and calm behavior, such as containing and soothing ourselves, activates the Calm System.

Attaining Level Two recovery means you’ll spend more time activating the Calm System and less time activating the Stress System, which will keep symptoms at bay.

This is why attaining Level Two recovery is vital to lasting recovery from anxiety disorder, hyperstimulation, and their symptoms!

2. As long as the body is hyperstimulated, even to the slightest degree, it can present symptoms of any type, number, intensity, duration, frequency, and at any time.

Hyperstimulation symptoms only completely disappear when the body has had sufficient time to recover and stabilize.

Any other expectation is unrealistic.

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our Anxiety Articles page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Why Stress Reduction Is So Important For Anxiety Disorder Recovery.