After having explored the difference between stress and anxiety and why we need to know about it, we shed light on the various factors that contribute to the two conditions.

How does one develop stress and anxiety

There are primarily two types of stress(1):

  • Acute stress: This is usually short-term stress that diffuses quickly. It can occur when you go on an adventure ride or have a fight with your partner, and it also helps you to deal with dangerous situations.
  • Chronic stress: This is stress that goes on for a longer duration, such as for weeks or months. Think – trouble with your boss or financial issues; this kind of stress needs to be managed in time before it starts causing health problems.

Anxiety, one of the most common mental health issues in the US today(2), is – on the other hand – a reaction to stress, as per Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Genetics and environmental factors both play a role in the development of anxiety, with traumatic life events likely to trigger anxiety disorders in people who are already prone to anxiety(3). Traits which have been inherited can also be a factor. 

So how early can these two conditions begin?

How does stress during pregnancy affect the brain of the child? 

If a mother is under stress when she is pregnant, there are changes that occur in the amygdala of the child’s brain, which is the part that controls emotions. Excess glucocorticoids or cortisol is secreted in the mother’s brain, which travels through the placenta into the child’s developing brain, and causes the amygdala to increase in size(4)

In 2013, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine found that ‘measuring the size and connectivity of the amygdala—a part of the brain associated with processing emotion—can predict the degree of anxiety a young child is experiencing in daily life’.

As per Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, “higher maternal cortisol levels in early gestation was associated with more affective problems in girls, and this association was mediated, in part, by amygdala volume”(5).

Simply put-

This child would thus be more prone to higher levels of anxiety due to epigenetic imprinting of stress by the mother – in simple terms, an early childhood experience that changes the regulation and expression of their genes. (Go ahead and read up all about epigenetics here if you want to dig deeper.) 

This cycle perpetuates itself in the future, like a ripple effect spanning generations; even with that child gets pregnant, considering she is female, her feotus will be exposed to excess levels of glucocorticoids – or stress – as well.

How does one’s childhood affect the chances of developing stress and anxiety later in life?

Prof. Robert Sapolsky summarised it succinctly(6) when he said, “What your childhood is like has a lot to do with what sort of adult you’re going to wind up being.”

Research(7) has shown that parental stress during their children’s early years can leave an imprint on their sons’ or daughters’ genes – ‘an imprint that lasts into adolescence and may affect how these genes are expressed later in life’. 

“These results confirm what early childhood experts have long known – those first few years are a crucial period that sets the stage for much of what happens to the individual later in life,” said co-author Thomas Boyce, a professor at UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership and a scientist at CFRI. Read more about this study here

How does one’s social rank and personality affect stress response?

Prof. Sapolsky has spent over four decades studying(8) olive baboons in the Serengeti in East Africa, and unearthed some pertinent points about how they respond to stress.  

“The reason baboons are such good models is, like us, they don’t have real stressors,” he said. “If you live in a baboon troop in the Serengeti, you only have to work three hours a day for your calories, and predators don’t mess with you much… So the baboon is a wonderful model for living well enough and long enough to pay the price for all the social-stressor nonsense that they create for each other. They’re just like us: they’re not getting done in by predators and famines, they’re getting done in by each other.”

In baboons, the higher rank you occupy in your troop, the lower your levels of glucocorticoids, and the lower your blood pressure. Interestingly, though, humans have multiple hierarchies in their life (such as at home, at work, or at a hobby club), and they generally tend to define themselves psychologically by the ones in which they rank the highest. 

Personality, too, plays a huge role in defining stress levels; one individual might find a certain situation neutral, whereas another (with higher glucocorticoids levels) might perceive threat in it. Subjective status, an individual’s perception of her socioeconomic standing, is a robust predictor of physical health in many societies(9).

In the end, while we may not be able to do much about factors like genetics, having a certain level of self-awareness of your stressors and genetic inclinations is a good start. Read more about how cortisol and the stress response works here, the different types of therapy available should you choose to seek out professional medical help and and join us in this enquiry into whether we hate stress, or just extremely high levels of it

Lifestyle choices such as better food habits, regular physical exercise and breathing and meditation can also help with stress relief to a large extent.