Stress affects every living being, regardless of background. The body is equipped with incredible wisdom, using hair-fine trigger mechanisms to set in motion a cascade of internal events to help us navigate our way out of stressful situations.
Today, our fast-paced and goal-driven lifestyles are leading to chronic stress and serious health problems. The effects of stress include depression, anxiety, and a multitude of chronic illnesses
What is Stress, Really?
Stress is the name given to the state that arises when we perceive ourselves to be in danger. From a primal perspective, that could mean we have encountered a dangerous animal.
In a modern setting, the stress stimulus might come from pressure at work – if you don’t perform well, you are at risk of losing your income. This is a threat to your safety and survival.
You may find yourself in a position where you have to navigate pressing traffic. This is stressful because you are aware of the possibility of injury or loss of your vehicle, if you don’t find your way to your destination, safely.
Your thinking process might tell you that the situation you are in does not warrant a true stress response. Your body, on the other hand, perceives a real threat and elicits an appropriate response.
It is not a conscious thought process – your stress responses are controlled by the basal ganglia, a part of the brain often nicknamed the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain is responsible for your unconscious processes. It is programmed to activate a fight or flight response to any stimulus that presents a stressful possibility.
It is designed to assist the continuation of our species; dominating reproduction urges and self-preservation behaviors.
Stress and the Body – The Powerful Hidden Mechanisms
The entire stress response is a feedback system. That means one part of your body will detect a threat (even if it’s minor); like stubbing your toe, touching a hot pan, or perhaps you were told bad news.
Your senses – sight, touch, hearing – will relay the message to your brain. It happens instantaneously. The reptilian part of your brain will active the Sympathetic Nervous System, which is also known as the Fight or Flight Response.
Here’s what happens behind the scenes in your body:
1) Your body will end any processes that require energy – that means digestions is suspended among others.
2) All of your energy reserves are made available to your muscles.
3) Your muscles are also given more power when the heart rate increases, to allow for more oxygen and blood to circulate to power a rapid boost of energy expenditure (in case you need to outrun a lion).
4) As a result, your breathing is now rapid and shallow to take in more oxygen.
5) Your pupils will dilate, allowing you to identify potential threats faster.
6) Adrenaline is secreted by the adrenal glands to power you, alongside cortisol. These powerful hormones can also numb pain and give you the endurance necessary to fight off injury and persist through the pain.
7) The frontal cortex of the brain is disengaged. Clever and clear thought processes make way for the primal brain so that it can navigate the body out of danger. That’s why people act out of instinct in stressful situations.
The physical responses are primal, designed to help a human survive most primal threats, like falling prey to carnivorous animals.
These responses might not help a student who is about to take an exam or someone who is about to deliver a public speech, but the body isn’t aware that the response is not serving the body.
Likewise with stressful work situations, in fact, a disengaged frontal cortex might lead to clouded judgement and unclear thinking processes.
What Happens if We Don’t “Come Down” from the Stress?
The body’s natural response once the stressful event has passed, is to engage the Parasympathetic Nervous System. This means the Fight or Flight response is no longer needed and a state of calm can return.
Chronic Lifestyle Stress
Sadly, the vast majority of stress resulting from life in our modern setting becomes chronic. This is because the danger isn’t fleeting.
We are often required to stay in stressful work environments for years at a time. Other modern-day stresses include financial worry, relationships and home environments that are rife with conflict, chronic illnesses, and more. These stimuli are ongoing, which means they are continually activating a Fight or Flight response, whether it is to a lesser degree or a greater one.
Accumulated and Stored Stress
Other times, we may experience one major traumatic event. Perhaps an armed robbery or dismissal from work. The stressful situation arrives, brings with it a stress response, but we then fail to experience the arrival of the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
In this case, even though you have moved out of the situation, your body believes you are still there and it continues to send you these helpful responses to help you cope.
When stress responses stay with us, we experience a number of symptoms. It is possible to become aware of only one of these, all of these, or even none:
Anxiety, insomnia, and depression – the hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, will continue to course through your body, bringing about physical anxiety which you might not be able to pin to any specific cause.
Cortisol will also prevent you from falling asleep as it is a stimulant. Your brain will not permit you to sleep if it perceives danger.
Poor digestion – other than the fact that a stress response suspends digestive processes (which will lead to the food simply fermenting in the digestive tract resulting in gas and bloating), there is interesting new research surrounding the psoas muscle and its response to trauma.
The psoas muscle connects the pelvis to the back. As part of trauma response and the famous fetal position, it actually contracts. This can lead to “spastic” colon, also known as IBS, as food is unable to pass through the lower intestine, easily.
Chronic fatigue – while all your energy is being directed towards coping with stress, you’re utterly depleted. Funding all of these delicate processes indefinitely is exceptionally taxing on your body.
Cloudy thought processes, memory loss, short-tempered tendencies and an inability to make decisions are typical symptoms of chronic stress. If your frontal cortex, the center of the brain responsible for rational, logical thinking, is frequently disengaged – you are unable to assimilate new information and store it effectively.
Symptoms of Chronic Stress: Depression, Anxiety, and Other Disorders
The results of ongoing stress are varied. Stress can also lead to elevated inflammation levels in the body, which paves the way for almost any illness under the sun, but particularly chronic illnesses like diabetes, vitiligo, eczema, asthma, and many more.
There are also startling connections between inflammation and depression – depression is grossly exacerbated by inflammation.
Depression and anxiety are natural reactions to a body that is forced to function under Fight or Flight conditions, indefinitely. People often experience a sense of impending doom or a feeling that no matter what, nothing will ever feel better.
Tiredness and an inability to perform basic functions are also the results of prolonged stress responses. A physician, however, will review the symptoms and diagnose depression or anxiety (respectively) and prescribe medication to help make the symptoms more manageable.
People typically believe they require the medication because their brain doesn’t manufacture the feel-good hormones. In many cases, prolonged stress simply inhibits the production of these hormones.
While drugs can alleviate the heaviness of suffering, it fails to eliminate the problem. If stress levels are not controlled but the symptoms are simply masked, new symptoms may occur, like adrenal burnout.
How to Deactivate Your Fight or Flight Response for a Better Life
There are a number of exceptional treatment protocols to help your body return to its calm and centered state.
Instead of aiming to cure anxiety or treat depression, aim to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Here are a few ways to do this:
Deep Breathing – don’t underestimate the power of deep breathing. Correct deep breathing counters the fight or flight response directly. A simple deep breath in and out won’t cut it. The power lies in a slow exhale.
A rule of thumb is to breathe in for 10 seconds, hold it in for 5 seconds, and exhale for 15 to 20 seconds – the slower the better. For help with this, download a breathing app which will cue your intake, your hold, and your exhale.
Herbal remedies – like Ashwagandha root. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, meaning it strengthens the body’s ability to adapt to different situations with greater ease, including stress. Magnesium is another remedy that has been found commonly deficit among those suffering from anxiety, depression and insomnia.
It is imperative to source a quality calcium supplement, the common drugstore brands are not recommended.
Exercise – assists with stress relief. It helps to burn off that excess energy that results from the cortisol and adrenaline. Anxiety is often an overcharge of internal emotions that are not released.
Soothing forms of exercise that act as powerful tools in activating the parasympathetic nervous system include practices like yoga.
Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) – is a revolutionary new approach to releasing the tension stored in the body on a cellular level. Introduced by Dr. David Berceli (PhD) a renowned Conflict Resolution Expert, TRE is a series of exercises which stimulate the psoas muscle and the primal brain centers, eliciting a series of tremors which release any stored energy.
It certainly looks weird, but veterans who have PTSD swear by it.
Shaking it off and Embracing Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Understanding the complex mechanisms of stress is an ongoing process in the health and wellness industry.
Stress is designed to be a healthy mechanism that can move us out of danger. It can also assist us in bettering ourselves, as we conquer new challenges and grow into stronger people.
That said, it is important to look at how well-equipped we are to handle these curveballs.
As new studies emerge, we are constantly astounded with new information which confirms that stress-overload can be deadly.
Turning a potential health risk into a victory is a matter of mastering our coping mechanisms and understanding the underlying processes.