If you are looking for an effective way to mitigate the impact of stress, you are at the right place. Understanding the response of our body against stressors in the environment is our first step in changing the trajectory of our health addressing the root of many of our problems.
What is the fight or flight response?
Stress is nothing other than the incredible and powerful response of our body to manage acute threats from the environment. Stress is also described as the epidemic of the century and a large body of scientific evidence has confirmed the direct and indirect relationship between stress and more than 90% of today’s disease. The symptoms of stress that we experience (heart palpitations, insomnia, racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, shaking, high blood pressure), are a direct result of the activation of our stress response, otherwise known as our fight or flight response.
This term was first formulated in the early 1900’s by Harvard physiologist, Walter Cannon, to describe the amazing process through which we engage our sympathetic nervous system to orchestrate a series of events that allow us to confront any threats to our survival.
What is the sympathetic nervous system?
The smooth operation of many of our involuntary body functions (like breathing & heart rate), are governed by our autonomic nervous system. For balance and optimal health, the two main branches of the autonomic nervous system (the sympathetic and the parasympathetic) need to be in balance!
The sympathetic branch, which is responsible for the activation of the fight or flight response, increases muscle blood flow and tension, dilates pupils, accelerates heart rate and respiration, and increases perspiration and arterial blood pressure. The parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, has pretty much the opposite effect, conserving energy as it slows down the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.
What happens when our fight or flight response is triggered?
Whenever a tiny structure in our brain called amygdala, receives a message that is perceived as a threat, (through one of our five senses), it sends a signal to a different part of our brain called hypothalamus to prepare our body to handle that threat. The hypothalamus then engages multiple body systems through the release of neurotransmitters and hormones which make temporary adjustments that regulate our internal functions and redirect our energy to specifically eliminate the perceived challenge. Some examples of the way our body accomplishes this are:
- Increased blood flow is diverted to our muscles from other parts of our body,
- Extra energy is produced through increased blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugars, and fats.
- Excessive blood loss is prevented in the event of an injury through a higher rate of the blood clotting function,
- Muscle tension is increased in order to provide the body with extra speed and strength.
The problem with our fight or flight response
The fight or flight response is extremely valuable and has kept us alive for millions of years, as it essentially arms us with temporary superpowers to address a real threat (for example, if we encounter a bear during a hike in Yosemite). However, there are numerous problems with what seems to be an overactivation of our stress response for perceived threats that are not necessarily in the here and now.
Some of these problems are as follows:
1. We engage our fight or flight response too much.
We were only designed to elicit this response occasionally. Significant consequences to our health and happiness result when we put on hold our precious functions, (like our immune function or digestion), for perceived threats, like fear of losing our job, a relationship, or something as simple as the respect and admiration of another.
2. We lose our ability to connect with others.
When we operate from a fearful state of being, we short-circuit valuable parts of our biology and physiology that are associated with really critical inner strengths and capabilities. For example, when we go through life with constant activation of our sympathetic nervous system (as is the case when our fight or flight response is triggered), we shift from the right hemisphere of our brain to our left hemisphere. This causes us to lose our ability to relate to others. Research is showing that we are left- hemisphere-shifted 75% of the time. As a consequence, we are not able to nourish our important attachments, which results in us feeling even more threatened because we don’t feel connected.
3. Our immune system function is compromised.
One of the myriad of corticosteroids that our body releases to prime us to address a threat is cortisol. In short bursts, cortisol has beneficial effects, such as natural anti-inflammatory properties and the conversion of fat cells into glucose. However, in large quantities, cortisol can significantly interfere with the function of our immune system. This leads to us being prone to disease, and a much higher incidence of disturbances can occur, including the flu, gastrointestinal issues, and sexual dysfunction.
Furthermore, there is evidence that chronic high levels of cortisol impacts the production of new central nervous system cells and can shrink our brain’s hippocampus. This can lead to memory impairment, which has been well-documented in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.
4. We lose access to the majority of our “thinking brain.”
When we operate from a fearful state, always ready to defend and fight, our metabolic energy shifts from the executive part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) to the more primitive parts of our brain. The precious data that we have stored in our prefrontal cortex to allow us to solve problems and make reasonable decisions is no longer available to us. Therefore, we find ourselves in a state of temporary perceptual and cognitive impairment. Long term, if the demands from the environment surpass our body’s ability to maintain balance, permanently altered brain architecture and dysfunction in vital bodily processes can occur. The term that describes the extensive damage that can occur in organs and functions as a physiological consequence of chronic exposure to stress is Allostasis. The term was coined in the mid nineties by Mcewen and Stellar.
The way to address the negative effects of the overactivation of our fight or flight response is to activate our parasympathetic nervous system. The great news is that although our brain’s ability to change for the good is a Nobel-prize winning neuroscientific concept called neuroplasticity, we don’t need a neuroscience background to intercept the toxic impact of life’s events. Sympathetic activation within a healthy range is what we call motivation! Can you recall the nervousness and excitement of any event that led to a positive outcome, like taking an exam, or making a presentation to your colleagues? We do have the power to intercept the toxic impact of our fight or flight response and use it to our advantage!
The next time you feel challenged by life situations, and you find your self doing things like “putting your foot in your mouth”, (which means your implicit memories have led you to trigger your fight or flight response), consider trying one of these actions:
1. Question and redefine the perceived threat.
Asking yourself questions that demand involvement from the executive part of your brain redirects energy to the part of your brain that has access to valuable data. When a simple event like a poor performance review leads you to fearful thoughts, dialogue with yourself and challenge yourself to determine what about the situation makes you feel fearful. Evaluating how much of your thoughts are true and how much they may be a story are powerful ways to regain control of your best self.
2. Shift your attention to a positive perspective
Redirect your attention to identifying the positive aspects of an experience. Even if an experience is a highly stressful event, (like getting laid off), you can always find aspects of an event that can yield positive outcomes. Perhaps you can use the additional time to assess your next career move or complete a certification you never had the time to complete before. Despite the challenging aspects of a highly stressful event like the loss of a job may be, we will not be able to problem solve effectively unless we regain internal nervous system balance!
3. Turn towards the things that matter.
Regardless of what challenges life may throw at us, we always have constants that we can focus on to reinstate our sense of safety. Recounting the positive elements of our lives, one by one, at times of stress has been found to have a positive, lasting effect on our ability to be resilient and return to our home base of internal balance. Whether we focus on the fact that, regardless of the economy, we have a roof over our head, or we have love and support at our disposal through our social connections, our brain gets the message that we will be fine despite the acute challenge we may be facing at a given moment. This focus on the positive also empowers us to resist the stance of learned helplessness that has been shown to be one of the underlying causes of depression.
4. Quiet your mind.
One of the most overlooked aspects of our human capabilities is our innate ability to impact involuntary functions through a voluntary one: our breath! When we are in the midst of a challenging interaction, for example with a teenage daughter, we may not think that making our breath slower, deeper, and quieter will make any difference. Most of our states of discomfort, if you take a moment to think about it, are linked to negative patterns of thought. By recognizing that alone and putting our attention on a neutral spot like our breath, we can directly and instantaneously reinstate the balance of our nervous system. At first, we may not even recognize the internal process of balancing our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. However, if we choose to incorporate this practice over a period of time, we can adjust our automatic response to stressors and experience the benefit of the power we have to mitigate the symptoms of stress by altering the meaning we give to life situations and by simply changing our breath.
Navigating life via activation of our fight or flight response deprives us of our creativity, problem-solving ability, and ultimately our best self, not to mention resulting in a great number of health issues. Since we cannot control the environment and the stressors we are exposed to at any given time, the only thing we can affect is the resources, inner strengths, and support systems we have in place for coping with life’s demands.
Understanding the power of our fight or flight response and using it wisely by adjusting what is within our control, not only gives us the opportunity to enjoy life, with its ups and downs, but also allows our best self to address life’s challenges. Then we can enjoy optimal health both in the present moment and the long-term.