The Stress Response
Whether you’re a teen or an adult, you have probably experienced “the stress response.”
You have a test tomorrow at school…you can’t sleep. Your parents are fighting…you get anxious. Your boyfriend broke up with you…your stomach aches. You think about wanting to be accepted at a good college…your heart races. You sit down at your computer to do homework…you can’t concentrate. As an adult, you realize you’re going to be late for work…your breath speeds up. Your children are driving you crazy…you get angry. You can’t pay all your bills…your neck gets tight.
During a perceived stressful event, our sympathetic nervous system, which is also called the “fight, flight or freeze” response, is triggered, preparing us to take action. This stress response includes a vast amount of energy being mobilized, stress hormones being released into our body, our breath speeding up, heart racing and muscles tensing, just to name a few. (The counterpart of the sympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest system,” which is called the parasympathetic nervous system. This system is in control when we are relaxed, calm and during times of sleep.)
The Fight, Flight or Freeze Response
The stress response is a potent mind-body phenomenon, which prepares us to “fight” or “flee” from a perceived threat or stressor. Dawson Church, PhD, founder of the National Institute for Integrative Health and author of the book, “The Genie In Your Genes”, explains it this way. “When you trigger the fight-or-flight response in your body, it’s the equivalent of the head of state declaring war. When war is declared, every industrial resource of a nation is suddenly shifted to the production of munitions. Every one of the country’s systems is put on a war footing…the fight-or-flight response hijacks all the body’s system, just like a country going to war.”
Once our lower instinctual brain declares war and decides we should fight or flee, that plan must be carried out to completion in order for our body and mind to know the danger is over and for our systems to return to normal. If we do not complete the plan, the energy that was mobilized to take action remains stuck in our body, and our nervous system keeps reacting “as if” we are still in danger. When this happens, our stress response system can be thrown out of balance and we become unable to self-regulate and manage day-to-day stress effectively.
Saber Tooth Tigers Versus Modern Day Stressors
Our “fight, flight or freeze” stress response is a 100,000-year-old model that was designed to protect us from the proverbial saber tooth tiger that once threatened our survival. It is designed for short-term use to deal with physical threats in which the emergency resolves quickly; either we run from, or kill, the saber tooth tiger, or it kills us.
Today, most of the saber tooth tigers we encounter are psychological in origin and not a threat to our physical survival. For teens, they consist of things like taking a test, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, getting into college and family stress. For adults it might be rush hour traffic, missing a deadline, the boss yelling or having an argument with someone. Nonetheless, these modern day saber tooth tigers trigger the activation of the stress response.
Most of the time, we cannot run from, or fight, our perceived threats. If we are a teen, we have to go to school and take tests and deal with our parents fighting. Adults have to sit in their offices and maintain control, or sit in traffic and handle it. And, at times, we may not deal with an event in the manner we would prefer due to many reasons, including fear of repercussions, social stigmas or family and/or work pressures.
Reality Versus Our Body’s Response
Our brain isn’t particularly good at evaluating how serious a particular stressor is. Dr. Amit Sood, M.D., who is the associate director of Complementary and Integrative Medicine and chair of the Mayo Mind Body Institute, explains it this way. “Think of lighting a sparkler (or a candle or a match) inside a house. Now imagine you can’t tell the difference between a sparkler and a multiple-alarm-fire, so each time you send every available firefighter to put it out. It would probably extinguish the sparkler, but it would waste a lot of resources. Similarly, when the body is constantly stressed, it’s pouring resources into fighting that stress, which can, over time, take a profound physical toll.”
Further, the mind does not distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. So, every time we replay stressful events in our head, our body reacts “as if” they were currently happening. Ruminating over stressors can keep our body in a constant state of alarm. And to make matters worse, there is much scientific evidence to suggest that we aren’t consciously aware of all our thoughts. So, it is possible to have thoughts that we are not aware of consciously. Thoughts that constantly send signals to our body and keep us in a state of stress, preparedness or high arousal.
Stress Over Time
If our stress response is continually triggered, we remain in a stressful state of high arousal. When this happens, we become consistently less able to handle stress of any kind, and progressively more likely to overreact to even minor stressors and under-react to a major threat. Examples include having a major meltdown because you can’t find your glasses, or glossing over the fact that you were missed being run over by a bus by mere inches.
The signs of unresolved stress show up in all parts of our physical and mental makeup, and may include:
- Poor judgment
- A general negative outlook
- Excessive worrying, moodiness or irritability
- The inability to relax
- Feeling lonely, isolated or depressed
- Aches and pains in the body, especially the neck
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Chest pain or rapid heartbeat
- Over- or under-eating
- Social withdrawal
- Procrastination or neglecting responsibilities
- Increased alcohol, drug or nicotine consumption
- Nervous habits, such as pacing or nail-biting
If you’d like to find out more about how to restore balance to the stress response system, please call for a free 15-minute consultation. Please call 949-400-5951.