The Stress Response is what happens when the brain perceives danger – the part of the autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and the body prepares itself to fight, flee or freeze. This is when the body goes into overdrive with the aim of either escaping or preparing to fight as soon as possible. The Stress Response, (traditionally known as the fight-or-flight reaction) is composed of four stages.
Stress is defined as “the inability to cope with a perceived (real or imagined) threat to one’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being which results in a series of physiological responses and adaptations” (Chopra, 2000; Dossey, 2004)
The brain receives stimuli from all five senses at all times. After interpreting each stimuli immediately, the brain takes action based on whether or not a threat has been detected. The sympathetic nervous system under stress is capable of causing several involuntary responses. Heart beat accelerates, blood flow speeds up, tingling can be felt in the extremites, the skin can change temperature while the eyes dilate for better vision and breathing is enhanced for optimum oxygen intake. In extreme cases, urine or fecal matter will involuntarily expel, making the body lighter for flight. Some people have also reported experiencing what they describe as super-human surges of physical strength. When the danger has passed, the body returns to homeostatsis and hopefully, recovers from the stress, although lingering trauma is common. Regardless of the type of stress induced on the body, it can trigger the Stress Response.
Good vs. Bad Stress
The Stress Response is hard-wired into our bodies for good reason. When humans lived in ages ago, in a much more dangerous world, they were more vulnerable to attacks from animals and other human tribes or groups. Even though in the Western world, we have greatly changed or reduced our vulnerability levels, many nations in the world are still living with constant stresses.
The positive state that arises from “good stress’ is called eustress. We experience it when we fall in love or have a heightened encounter with a person we greatly admire. It feels good and helps to promote proper function in several of our organs. The negative type of stress, known as distress, can stimulate us to perform better in the case of academic exams and other low-stress but critical periods. So the optimal stress level is the mid-point – where the body is still experiencing eustress but before it moves into distress. This state generally affords peak performance and a healthy tension that keeps the mind alert. High distress leads to imbalance and eventual breakdown. Stressful careers that bring chronic fight-or-flight situations are notorious for leading to burnouts and nervous breakdowns.
Impactof Progressive Stress
While the sympathetic nervous system serves us well when it comes to escaping from danger, we sometimes get stuck in fight-or-flight long after the time when we need to be in that heightened state. This takes a toll on the mind and body. The natural response of trembling or shaking after a shock is often suppressed so the stress is not released from the body. If the person or animal encountering the danger does not return to homeostasis, there is a higher risk of long-term stress and a number of health drawbacks that come with it. Physical and mental health is negatively impacted and recovery can be slow and sometimes difficult.
There are several warning signs that a person has been overly stressed. Emotionally, they may become moody, irritable, or agitated beyond the point of relaxation. They can also feel overwhelmed, isolated or lonely, depressed or unhappy. One might also experience memory problems with an inability to concentrate. Judgment becomes impaired and sadly, pessimism sets in, with life becoming clouded with negatively. With added anxiety and worry, life can become almost unbearable.
Some common physical signs to look for are: aches and pains, digestive issues, chest pain and tachycardia (fast heart beat). The person with chronic stress can also experience a loss of sex drive. People close to the sufferer may notice behavioral changes such as a change in diet – quantities of food and frequency of meals might change. She might be sleeping more or less than normal, choosing isolation, showing signs of procrastination, or exhibiting nervous habits like nail biting or pacing. Many people under stress will use cigarettes, alcohol or other drugs to self-medicate. This often results in addiction.
The fight-or-flight response to stress is very valuable in that it preserves our lives in dangerous situations. It can react to threats before we do, but sometimes we get stuck in that mode. When that leads to physical, emotional or mental stress, it can seriously undermine our health and lead to chronic problems.
Looking for a great way to reduce stress? Find out how exercise can reduce stress levels here.