Knowing and understanding the physiology behind the stress response is one of the most important aspects of managing distress. Stress is nebulous, it is unclear and hazy, and your job is to recognise it for what it is. This allows us to chart where it starts and where it ends. The terrain, hills and valleys of this map are important, as experiences vary in severity from mild tension to full-blown panic. The stress response can be a brief flush, over in a few seconds, through to a pervasive mindset that colours the world and is a constant companion.
Related: 5 steps for managing work stress
Everyone has experienced some amount of stress in their lives whether it be taking an exam or hearing a sudden noise when you are alone in a dark house. How do you know this is a stress response? Well, our body recognises sensations such as dizziness, numbness, and being short of breath. As you become more aware of your body, you may notice your own warning signs. Take a look at the box below – perhaps you can identify one or more of them as being something you have experienced? This list is not exhaustive, there are many different signs that you may become aware of.
Anxiety warning signs
- Tension in your forehead or shoulders
- Sensations of nausea, lightness in your stomach or breathing more rapidly
- Things you do, like picking your nails or clenching your fists
- Noticing events, such as becoming angrier more quickly
- Noticing feelings of impatience, frustration and being more upset with people more often
These sensations are important for survival Distress also does not have to develop rapidly, or acutely. It can develop slowly. Although not strictly true, the story of the frog in the pot is a good description of the effects of chronic stress. The poor frog in our story is placed in boiling water, and we figure it will jump out to escape the distress. The twist here is that if the frog is placed in cold water that is slowly heated to boiling, it will not escape and attempt to cope with the danger but will be cooked to death. When dealing with distress, this highlights your inability to react to significant changes when they occur gradually.
Every animal has a stress response to a perceived threat when they think they are in danger. The response, called the fight/flight response, prepares you for a fight with another animal or to run away from a predator to feel safe again. Without this protection mechanism, humans would have not survived.
The fight/flight response is automatic. It stops our mind thinking and allowing reasoning to get in the way of a quick response. We take action. In today’s world, in developed societies, it is required less often but it is still essential that when we are confronted by something that will harm us we act quickly. Graham explains a little more about what your body does and how this makes you feel in the box below.
When you are stressed, your heart beats more quickly which may make it feel as though it will “leave my chest”. This is an important part of the response so that the oxygen the muscles require for action will be there. The downside is that you might look pale when stressed, feel light headed and notice your hands becoming tingly. A tightness in your chest is associated with the stress response. Often when you get frightened the rapid intake of breath is the first audible sign that you have been scared. You tend to breathe more rapidly and in order to do that, take more shallow breaths.
Nervous systems control fight/ flight response
I am going to use an analogy of a racehorse starting a race to describe the two nervous systems involved in the response to threats, composed of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of fight or flight, whilst in opposition the parasympathetic system calms, known as the rest and digest response.Imagine the horse being let out of the gate at the racetrack; this is the sympathetic nervous system, as the horse takes flight this literally is the fight/flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is analogous to the jockey; slowing the horse down and restoring the system to balance. Once the horse has left the gate there is pretty much no turning back. Such is the sympathetic nervous system, all or nothing. Panic attacks involve many symptoms and this is the result of all the systems responding to the perceived threat.The thalamus and hypothalamus of the brain inform the adrenal glands to release two chemicals, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which initiate the fight/flight response. The sympathetic nervous system begins, continues and increases its effects. The body does have many ways to restore equilibrium. However it takes time to wash away these chemicals and for the jockey to slow the horse down. The chemicals are released, and ensure that the anxiety response continues even after the threat has gone or you have decided it is a false alarm. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are chemicals and are reabsorbed and reused by the body. However, this process takes time. While this reabsorption process is happening, you remain in an anxious state. Although it is uncomfortable, it is not going to harm you.
The fight/flight response takes a great deal of energy, which makes you feel tired, drained and fatigued – wanting to just return to bed. All of your biological and chemical systems have been activated to deal with a threat, and your body often leaves nothing in the tank meaning it makes sense that you are tired.Activation of the fight/flight response produces other symptoms like your pupils dilating, increased sweating and a “dry” mouth, nausea and tense muscles. Tension in your neck can result in a headache and other types of pain. Again there are useful reasons for these symptoms. Sweating allows the body to regulate its temperature. Taking in as much light as possible when your pupils are dilated means quite literally you are more vigilant. Tense muscles indicate you are ready to pounce which may be required when facing a significant demand.
About the authors
Dr Shane Pascoe graduated from the University of Newcastle and has worked in the field of Psychology in a variety of different roles in several countries.
Dr Graham Law is a senior lecturer at Leeds School of Medicine in England. He is a scientist in health research and leads a team looking at the impact of sleep on our metabolism and general health. He has published over 75 papers in peer-reviewed journals.
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