The Stress Response

Thanks to all of you who shared your thoughts on whether there is a link between stress and cancer  – particularly Dr Elaine Schnatter whose contribution was so valuable.  Today, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at what actually happens to our bodies when we are stressed.

The Stress Response

When we are confronted with a frightening situation, our “fight-or-flight” response – our body’s primitive, survival response to danger – is automatically triggered. This response which is hard-wired into our brains, mobilizes our body to “fight” or “flee” from a perceived threat.

Fight or Flight Response

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  • heart rate increases
  • pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible
  • blood-glucose level increases
  • digestion shuts down to allow more energy for emergency functions
  • chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream.
  • blood is directed into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy for running and fighting.
  • sight sharpens and our awareness and impulses quicken

All of these physiological responses prepare us for fight or flight. This is just the response you need when faced with a sabre toothed tiger, but our perceived threats today are not always so life threatening. Nevertheless our fight or flight response is activated (sometimes on a daily basis) as if our physical survival depends on it. If we aren’t careful, we can become stuck in survival mode. Living from crisis to crisis, we flood our bodies with stress hormones which can lead to headaches, digestive problems, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety.

Are you stressed?

You may be so used to being stressed that you’re not even aware you are stressed. Stop for a moment and check in with your body.

  • Are there any areas of tenseness or tightness in your body? Sore muscles? Tight stomach? Clenched teeth, shoulders, hands?
  • Observe your breath by placing one hand on your belly, the other on your chest. Watch your hands rise and fall with each breath. Is your breath shallow or deep?

Getting into the habit of paying attention to your body’s stress cues will help you know when it is time to intervene to reduce your body’s stress reaction.

What is your personal stress response?

While we all respond to stress with the physiological reactions listed above, we can manifest it outwardly in different ways. Which of the following best describes your normal reaction to stress?

  • Overexcited stress response -  irritable, overemotional,  agitated
  • Under excited stress response – depressed, withdrawn, shut down
  • Frozen stress response – become frozen emotionally

Awareness of your own unique physical response to stress is an important part of knowing how to manage it. For now take note of what it is for you and later in the week we will explore ways you will best respond to stress relief activities, based on your own response to stress.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on the stress response and how it manifests in your life in the comments section below.