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Most people are now aware of the fight or flight stress response and the fact that something or other happens in the body when this response is engaged! However I don’t think many people are really aware of the extent to which this response affects us and how much ill health, including mental health issues, could be prevented, with a little more care towards the self.
Stress is now recognised as the main contributor to disease and by stress I mean “a strain upon the system”. This strain could be personal events, emotional stress, overwhelm about deadlines, relentless home, personal or work pressures, physical discomfort caused by work or lifestyle or simply just a lack of movement and of course poor diet and deficient nutrition.
What Exactly is Fight Or Flight and its role in Stress?
The theory of “fight or flight” was established in 1932 (yes we’ve known about this for almost a century!) by Walter Cannon and refers to the cascade of biochemical/hormonal reactions that takes place when we react to what we perceive as a threat. I mentioned in an earlier post that fear is primarily a physiological reaction to a thought and not specifically an emotion. It can however be accompanied by many emotions so can often be difficult to isolate as fear alone.
When we perceive an immediate threat to our well-being we react in the same way that any mammal would, the difference with humans though is that the mind interferes. In the animal kingdom the animal, when frightened, will react by running, fighting or shaking until the hormones and chemicals have dissipated and been excreted. As any one of these reactions is deemed embarrassing or socially unacceptable we instead tend to bottle it up and that cascade of biochemical reactions, when stress is frequent or prolonged, will continue to wreak havoc in the body.
What Does Happen in the Body?
Various glands are activated to release hormones that prioritise the muscles, heart, lungs and brain – basically the organs we need in order to take immediate and massive action. The liver will then release glucose into the bloodstream for increased energy. More oxygen and an increased flow of blood for the muscles are needed so the breath becomes more rapid, the heart rate speeds up and blood pressure rises. The increase in anxiety is felt (and is necessary if action is needed) due to the release of adrenaline, which is needed to increase the heart rate. In a professional athlete or a performer on stage in front of thousands this reaction is useful!
It’s not useful if you are being undermined on a daily basis, reacting to a domestic situation without resolution or realising how low the bank account is getting…
The stress chemicals circulate in the body for 2 to 3 days before being excreted so if we are experiencing stress on a daily basis they build up with little release. As many people have an underlying level of fear, anxiety or stress and can end up on a hair trigger of reactivity the bio-chemicals build up and go no-where, gradually undermining the various systems and organs of the body. So that first adrenaline rush that cleared the head now becomes foggy thinking and mental fatigue, the geared up for action muscles turn into chronic tension, the overworked adrenals can turn into just feeling tired all the time. We can end with heart complications, high blood pressure and breathing issues, liver problems and increased blood sugar levels.
But what about the systems that get switched off during a fear spike? This can be just as lethal. The main ones are the digestive and immune system; as these systems are not needed for immediate physical action they either temporarily shut down or simply have less energy to work efficiently. The result of this breakdown in efficiency is poor immunity to infections and various digestive issues. As conditions such as IBS are on the rise it’s easy to see that stress is a major issue in the West. Another organ that works less efficiently is the skin, our circulation during a stress reaction is pulled towards the muscles and heart as skin function is not a priority, with the result that skin conditions can erupt or simply show up as an unhealthy or slightly deadined pallor.
The reason exercise is so highly recommended for stress is that it satisfies the need for action. It also uses up or burns through the biochemical reactions the body has undergone, allowing the body to return to homeostasis. One of the most healthy things to do for yourself after a stressful day is to walk. I believe driving everywhere contributes to stress levels as there’s so little time spent just walking. If you’ve had an awful day at work, leave the car and walk home if possible, or at least partially walk home. It might seem like it takes up too much time but not really when you factor in the cost of poor health.
The freeze response
I cannot write about fight or flight without mentioning the third component to this which is termed the ‘freeze’ response. It is of course what most of us tend to do and why all the the hormones and chemicals that have been released have no immediate outlet. There are three aspects to the freeze response and while most of us will visit all three, we will tend to dominate in one area.
The Three Aspects of the Freeze Response
Dissociation – This is where we bury what we feel, present a calm face to the world and fool ourselves into believing that we’re okay, we can cope. How do you know this is you? Tight, tense muscles, health issues that seem to come out of nowhere, even though you take care of yourself, exhaustion and feeling that life is just sort of okay, not really bad but certainly not great.
Flooding – This is where we tend to be very emotional and overreact to things others seem to take in their stride. Emotions and our “stories” about whatever bothers us tend to be on a repeating loop with no resolution. Some may think that excessive emoting is a form of release but in actuality the tendency to ‘flood’ will be on one or two repeating emotional themes, a repetitive negativity or over dramatisation, never going to a deeper layer below or getting to the core of the issue.
Distraction – This is probably what most of us have mastered in the modern world! Food, alcohol, smoking, TV, social media, shopping, OCD-like behaviour etc., etc… Similar to dissociation, but we are now stuffing the feelings down with less than healthy substances or behaviours.
Today’s post is just to digest the above information and ask yourself where you could be a little kinder to yourself and lessen the load on your body. Tomorrow I will post a guided and fairly relaxing meditation on releasing uncomfortable feelings.