Stress and Our Body : Stress Response Part 2
Stress and Our Body
Stress and fear are closely related in how our body responds. Within 20 seconds of an actual or perceived threat hundreds of hormones automatically rush through our bodies to prepare us to react. These hormones take blood from non-emergency aspects of our inner functioning, such as thinking, digestion and reproduction to heightened potential in others such as muscles, heart, and visual perception. The body is preparing to fight, flee, freeze or faint.
Regretfully, during stress one of the first places the blood moves away from is our brain – especially the pre-frontal cortex (more on brains in another blog) which controls rationality, conscience and long term planning in favour of our muscles. Without the oxygen in blood this part of the brain cannot function as well during stress.
Some other responses to stress hormones are narrowing of focus, increased respiration and heart pumping, muscle flexing and decreased digestion or sexual interest. We move from a thinking rational mode to survival mode.
I’m not sure if this is good news, or bad news – yes it prepares us to respond, but it typically takes up to two hours for our system to revert to its natural unstressed state – assuming that there are no further actual or perceived threats! Regretfully, the tongue is a muscle that gets engaged without the conscience of the brain, so we say and do things we later regret.
One thing most of us do when worried, fearful or stressed is we hold our breath. You can experiment with this for the next two minutes – hold your breath and notice all the inside and outside changes that happen. You will probably send yourself into a stress response – and the only thing you did was hold your breath! One of the most basic ways to address stress, anxiety and fear in the moment is to slow down and breathe deeply.
Knowing we will not be at our best, if possible, we can accept our limitations in stress response and move away from the situation (also known as a time-out). However, if the stress was caused by an argument with a loved one, we do need to commit to come back when calmed to deal with the problem in a more calm and rational way.
What we perceive as stressful or threatening is based on our history and experiences. How we think about ourselves, others and situations directly influence our potential responses. Therefore, the story we tell ourselves about a situation can trigger a stress response, or a coping response. For example, if I am a thrill seeker riding at the very front of the boat in stormy weather can be exhilarating. But if I am afraid of drowning since I can’t swim, it will trigger fear and withdrawal.
Many times, in the absence of an outside threat or stressor, how we think about ourselves can trigger a stress response. For example, thinking “I’m stupid and can never get anything right” increases our distress and stress response. Through awareness, we can change or challenge self-attacking thoughts and change the story we are telling ourselves to something more manageable and therefore less stressful. This frees our bodies from the debilitating effects of stress.