The stress response is an important one to understand. It evolved with us many thousands of years ago. Often called the “fight or flight” response, this is a series of biological and biochemical processes that happen as a result of stress. For our proto-human ancestors, this was a very helpful adaptation, a way to escape threats on a short time scale. The stress response creates a physiological state that was most supportive of a short burst harsh physical action (often either fighting or running away from a threat).
The stress response is governed by the sympathetic nervous system. Dominantly, the hormones cortisol, epinephrine (adrenalin) and norepinephrine (noradrenalin) are the biochemicals which create these reactions.
It is important to understand that the stress response becomes activated when there is a perceived threat. Meaning that, while pretty reflexive, it is a reaction that originates in our brain and is effected by our perceived sense of safety.
- Increased heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure: This would allow for improved circulation leading to better oxygenation and improved speed, strength and/or stamina.
- Increase in blood sugar and circulating lipids: I think of this a mobilizing of fuel. If the body is preparing to fight or flee, the muscles are going to need energy available to do their job.
- Digestion shuts down: This conserves energy. There is no need to worry about digesting one’s meal, if you might not survive the next 10 minutes. This is also why your mouth gets dry when you get nervous… saliva production is part of digestion and if you’re stressed, you get cotton-mouth.
- Reproduction shuts down: More conservation of energy. No need to make babies if you aren’t going to be alive or your environment is too dangerous for their survival.
- Shifts in circulation: Blood is shunted to large muscles and internal organs thus hands and feet get cold.
- Increased nervous system sensitivity: This is why, when you are awoken in the middle of the night by a strange noise, then you start to hear every little creak and groan. The nervous system becomes hyper-activated, leading to increased sensitivity to stimuli and jumpiness.
- Pupils dilate: This allows for a broader field of vision, but sacrifices fine focus.
- Initial boost in immune system, followed by decreased functioning: This is likely due to the immediate potential of fighting off possible wound infections.
All these reactions are EXACTLY what is needed if one is going to fight or flee. Great! The body knows what it’s doing. The problem comes because, now we are no longer grazing on the plains running from lions. We work in offices. We drive cars. The stress response still gets activated just like before; it happens due to perceived threats. It is just that now, those perceived threats do not require us to actually physically run away or fight. So all that energy mobilized to help you run is not burned. All those circulatory changes to help you fuel your muscles are now starving other organs for no good reason.
I hope, by reading the above list, you can understand that long term blood pressure increases and digestion and reproduction inhibition is a recipe for health problems. Some conditions can be a direct consequence of a chronically activated stress response: anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, ulcers, hair loss, digestive upset (of all sorts), frequent infections, musculoskeletal pain, erectile dysfunction, infertility, irregular menses, skin rashes… to name a few. Also, stress can lead to poor coping behaviors (like over or under eating, excessive alcohol consumption, or sleep disturbances) which then have their own consequences as well
So let’s pause here. Just reading all that is enough to get me a little wound up. So let’s take a deep breath and let those shoulders relax down away from our ears.
There is good news; the body has a counter balance to the stress response. The parasympathetic nervous system governs the relaxation response, which is affectionately called “rest and digest.” This pretty much is the physiological opposite of the stress response.
- Blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate decrease.
- Blood sugar and lipids normalize.
- Digestion kicks in.
- Reproductive capacity returns.
- The nervous system is more tolerant of stimuli.
- Immune system function returns.
This is the time when wounds heal, meals are processed and the organs all do their jobs. This is state that, ideally, we would exist in most of the time.
So this whole discussion brings me to stress management. Since our modern world is pretty good a triggering the stress response, without allowing us the ability to dissipate that reaction, we must take it on ourselves to establish good self-care strategies to manage stress.
There are also many valuable nutrients, herbs and vitamins that can be helpful to support your body during times of stress. But ultimately, these are no substitute for behaviors that dissipate and transform the stress response from fight/flight to rest/digest.
Breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, exercise, warm bath, a call to a friend, support groups, etc… are just some examples of possibilities. The most important thing is for you to find something that you are able to incorporate into your life regularly. If it is a hassle and you never do it, it wont help you manage your stress. Specific strategies for your personal stress management can be discussed with me in an office visit, but here is a simple relaxation exercise to try before bed.
Reverse The Day
Imagine yourself free from a racing anxious mind and able to fall easily into a restful sleep. This simple visualization practice allows you to process and release the stressors of the day, without becoming re-entangled with them.
- Find yourself tucked comfortably into your bed or a reclined seat.
- Begin with a few deep belly breaths to relax your body.
- Slowly and deliberately, walk through the events of the past day in your mind, but do them in reverse order.
- Start with what you just did to get ready for bed (shower, teeth brushing, etc.) and ultimately end with yourself first waking up in the morning. Just as if you were to hit rewind on a video. If you like, you can even visualize yourself walking backward, untyping the emails you wrote, unspeaking the words you said, etc.
- Rather than being a rehashing of every moment, this practice is intended to be a quick fly over that should take no longer than 10-15 minutes. Touch on each major event, but strive to not get wrapped up in remembering every detail. Just like the view from the window of a plane, you can see the major features of the landscape, but you have some distance from them, and before you know it, they have passed from view.
- If you find yourself straying and getting sucked into thinking about a particular event, take a deep breath and return to walking through the sequence of the day.
- By reversing the day, it gives your mind a chance to better process and release the events of the day, and can minimize the tendency to get riled up about them.
- It may take a little diligence in the beginning to keep your mind on tract, so please be gentle and understanding with yourself as you learn.
- If you find you are spending longer than 15 minutes on this practice, or it is causing you distress, abandon it for the night and return to it again the next day.
Next in the Foundations of Health series, we will be discussing the importance of community and social relationships and their role on health.