Understanding why we feel stress or anxiety is the first and the most important step in learning how to manage it. They are natural and helpful emotions that are supposed to protect us from real, physical danger. But, when people experience too much stress or anxiety and start having difficulties coping, that is when it becomes a problem. High-levels of stress and anxiety can put your health at serious risk and make your mind and body pay a high price for it. Unfortunately, either we don't understand the gravity of the risks involved or we choose to ignore it till we find ourselves in the tight grips of the problem.
Understanding the Fight or Flight response
Flight or Fight response is an instinctual self-protected mechanism that your body has developed to help you survive. This survival response, also known as the acute stress response, is designed to protect your body from a real threat or danger by preparing you to react quickly. The response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare your body to either "stay and deal with a threat" or "to run away to safety." To give you a simple example, when you are facing a predator and you take time to think about what your next move is, you are most likely to be killed, so its important for you to react immediately, and that’s how this response helps you with survival. Flight or Fight response isn’t a conscious decision. It’s an automatic reaction, so you can’t control it.
How does the Flight or Fight response work?
As soon as the brain perceives a threat, a little piece of it, called the Amygdala (the brain’s watchdog) kicks in, sounds an alarm, and activates the fight-or-flight response by releasing a cascade of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) to prepare your body to fight or run away. It basically gets your body ready to react to the situation. This can be helpful if you are facing a real threat or danger. But what happens when the situation that you are facing is not dangerous or life-threatening ?
The problem is that the Amygdala cannot distinguish between a life-threatening danger or threats that are subtle in nature, and acts the same way in both situations. When it senses a stressor, it automatically enters the survival mode by triggering the flight or fight response even though the danger is not real. That is exactly why horror movies elicit fear, even when you know what you’re seeing can’t hurt you. Originally named for its ability to enable you to physically fight or run away when faced with danger, the flight or fight response is now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate, like being stuck in traffic, a stressful day at work, etc. Problem happens when you are constantly having this reaction to things that are not real danger but perceived threats. Flight or Fight response is meant to work in short bursts but when you are always in this mode and your body think that it’s perpetually in danger even when you are actually not, it gets trapped in an elevated state for a long period of time. This leads to exhaustion insomnia, muscle tension, digestive problems, inflammations and frequent illnesses. The feeling of anxiety is your body’s response to these perceived threats, putting your nervous system into ‘high alert” because of stress hormones flooding your system continuously.
How does the Flight or Fight response affect the body?
You will be surprised to know about the uncountable ways in which your body is impacted when the flight or fight alarm is sounded, and the survival mode is activated. Some of the major affects are:
1) The adrenal gland starts pumping out stress hormones which squeeze the blood vessels in the front part of our brain, the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the part that does the thinking, words, planning. This part of the brain shuts down. The blood gets pushed to the back part of the brain that is reactive and instinctive, so this part gets amped up. Which means when you are under stress you are less intelligent cause the guy who does all the thinking(PFC) is on a break!!
2) When your body thinks you are in danger, it puts all its resources into protecting you. Other systems in your body, one of them being your Digestive System, slows down because your body thinks giving you energy to deal with the danger is more important than digesting that burger you had for lunch! Of course, this means you might get an upset or sore stomach from that burger sitting in stomach acid while it waits to be digested once the danger passes but being alive is more important, isn’t it?
3) The stress hormone temporarily turns off the Immune System to conserve energy so we can run away from or fight the threat. It totally makes sense cause let’s say you have a bacterial infection, and a lion is chasing u, would you put your energy fighting the infection? Or, would you rather use the energy to run away from the lion? So with the flight or fight response turned on all the time, the immune system is turned off much of the time. No surprises as to why people who are always stressed out are often sick!
To further understand how powerful the stress hormone is; you will be surprised to know that during an organ transplant, the immune system of the recipient of the transplant is shut down purposely to prevent it from rejecting the new organ because it’s a foreign tissue. The doctors inject cortisol, the stress hormone into the patient, which inhibits the immune system from rejecting the new organ! So no prizes for guessing what happens to your immune system which is exposed to a continuous flow of these stress hormones when you are under stress for a long period of time?
4) The body’s ability to grow and maintain (growth hormone production and tissue repair) is also shut down. When we talk about growth, it’s not just growing from a baby to an adult. The trillions of cells in our body die every day and are replaced. Sadly, when you are under stress or in the flight or fight mode, these cells do not get replaced at a normal rate.
5) The Reproductive System is temporarily halted as the body is using all its energy on the most crucial priorities and functions.
6) You start to breathe more quickly and shallow causing hyper ventilation and your heart starts beating extremely fast. These changes can cause strong chest pain. There is also an increase in blood pressure.