Anxiety and stress are reactions to a situation the brain interprets as threatening, but you want to be stressed and anxious! It’s healthy and expected regarding the situation. The issues are the lack of control over it and the exaggeration. So how does stress or anxiety become a problem?
Despite being often used interchangeably, they are different. The interpretation and symptoms of a threatening situation are called stress when they’re experiencing it and anxiety when they look back or ahead at it. Through your senses, the brain interprets the world around it. Imagine being cut off from all your senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Would it be any world to experience at all? Reality’s keystone for every one of us is the information we receive from the world through our senses. And the interpretation our brain makes of it is the actual reality around us.
Back to our stress and anxiety If someone’s reality were said to be realistic, then it would be very close to the world with little interpretation. But it’s not what the brain does. The whole purpose of the brain is to interpret, adapt, and create. And to do just that, it uses memory, imagination, and emotions. With memory, the brain can remember things; with imagination (or visualisation), it can simulate; and with emotions, it gets motivation.
So, when a difficult situation arises, the brain will use them to improve its chances of a positive outcome. With memory, the brain builds experience, learns, and recognises patterns; with imagination, it can simulate scenarios and choose the best course of action; and with emotions, it can prioritise by associating more or less strong emotions to a situation; the stronger the emotion, the more motivation and energy will be dedicated to the resolution, which, finally, will be executed through strategies. And it works well if, for starters, the interpretation hasn’t been biased too much by bad experience, prolific imagination, and strong emotions, and if all of this is managed with efficient strategies to cope with the situation. These strategies can be positive thinking or problem solving, but also procrastination (avoidance), worrying, nail biting, etc. The brain does not judge; it works with whatever it has at hand.
Furthermore, in order to save energy, the brain will automate strategies and more likely apply them to other situations that are less threatening. So, if the environment is repeatedly difficult, the brain will start to interpret more and more situations as threatening, choosing the side of better safe than sorry. And eventually the machine starts to spin out of control and interprets classic as threatening when it’s not.
To conclude, stress and anxiety are healthy reactions that allow us to cope with difficult situations. The problem is that, because of the environment and the way we decide to cope with a situation, the strategies we choose. Given the way life is, it happens more often than not that strategies are chosen involuntarily without giving them proper thought. So, if by chance it’s an efficient one, good; otherwise, it will kick back at one point or another, spinning the machine out of control.