Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened, are demanding or upset your balance in some way.
When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body for emergency action. Your heart beats faster, you breath harder and quicker, muscles tighten ready for action, blood pressure rises, and senses become sharper. These changes increase your strength and stamina, speed up your reaction time, and improve your focus. This is the “fight or flight” stress response and is your body’s way of protecting you from danger.
Stress isn’t always a bad thing. A healthy level of stress actually helps you stay focused and energetic. It can help you perform well under pressure, motivate you to do your best, and keep you alert and ready to avoid danger.
Life is full of frustrations, challenges, and demands. Stress becomes negative when you face continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between challenges. Stress then becomes overwhelming, and can damage your physical and mental health, relationships, and even your quality of life.
Research shows that humans have three ways of responding to stress:
Social engagement is the best strategy for feeling calm and safe in a stressful situation. It involves making eye contact, listening in an attentive way, and feeling understood— all of which can calm you down and stop defensive responses like “fight-or-flight.” When using social engagement, you think and feel clearly, and body functions such as blood pressure, heartbeat, digestion, and the immune system continue to work uninterrupted.
Mobilization – otherwise known as the “fight-or-flight” response. When you need or think you need to either defend yourself or run away from danger, and social engagement is not the right response for the situation, the body prepares for mobilization. Stress hormones are released to provide the energy you need to protect yourself. Body functions not needed for fight or flight—such as the digestive and immune systems — stop working. When the danger has passed, your nervous system calms the body back down to normal, slowing heart rate, and lowering blood pressure.
Immobilization. This is the most damaging response to stress and is used by the body only when social engagement and mobilization have failed. You’re in an angry, panic-stricken or otherwise dysfunctional state, unable to protect yourself or move on. In extreme, life-threatening situations, you may even lose consciousness. However, until your body is able produce to a fight or flight response, it may be impossible for your nervous system to return to its pre-stress state of balance.
Effects of stress overload
Many of us respond to every minor stressor by immediately resorting to “fight or flight”. This response interrupts other body functions, clouds judgment and feeling, and over time can cause stress overload and have a negative effect on both physical and mental health.
Your body’s nervous system isn’t always able to tell the difference between daily stressors and life-threatening events. So, if you’re stressed over an argument with your spouse, a traffic jam on your way to work, or a lot of debt, for example, your body can still react as if you’re facing a life-threatening situation. When you experience the fight or flight stress response over and over again, in your daily life, it can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave you at risk for mental and emotional problems.
In our next blog we’ll learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress overload, and take steps to reduce the harmful effects.