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Understanding The Stress Reaction

In this world we live in, stress comes in all shapes and sizes, such as a work deadline, an argument with a friend or a persistent worry about losing a job. Stress can be experienced daily at varying degrees but how much do you actually know about the Stress Reaction?

Our bodies are designed to physically respond when we believe a threat exists, in case we need to either run away, or stand and fight. Whether there is a real threat of danger, or we simply believe there is danger, our bodies go through a series of changes called the fight/flight response, also known as the Stress Reaction.

A stressful incident can trigger the Stress Reaction, often happens so quickly that people aren't aware of it, which in itself induces more fear of the physical changes. By understanding what has happened internally when the Stress Reaction has been triggered, you can start to rationalise and react in a more helpful way to eliminate further stress.

Sound The Alarm!

The Stress Reaction begins in the head and brain, the eyes or ears (or both) send the information to the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat etc.

The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

  • The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers.

  • The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the "rest and digest" response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.

The sympathetic nervous system then sends the adrenal glands a message to act. These glands respond by pumping the hormones adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream which bring on a number of physical changes.

The Body Takes Action

Now for the really enlightening part, some of the changes experienced include:

  • An increase in heart rate and breathing. The heart beats rapidly to enable blood and oxygen to be pumped around the body faster as these feed the muscles to run or fight

  • Blood pressure increases. As we breath more quickly our blood pressure increases. This actually means that even though we may feel faint, we are far less likely to faint as the blood pressure is higher

  • Nausea and Butterfly's in the stomach. As blood is being redirected away from the digestive system to the areas that need it most we often feel sick. We don't need to digest food when we are trying to survive so the system is put on pause

  • We sweat. This cools the body so we don't overheat when running away or fighting

  • Muscles tense in preparation for fight/flight. This results in varying feelings of tension, sometimes resulting in aches and pains and trembling and shaking

  • Dizzy or lightheaded. If we don't actually run or fight then all that excess oxygen and adrenaline are stored in the body, which can lead to feeling dizzy amongst many other unpleasant symptoms

  • Jumping thoughts as mental activity and alertness increase for quick decision making however....

  • Impaired Cognitive Ability. The Pre-Frontal Cortex is the rational part of the brain at the front of the head responsible for thinking and decision making. However it's also highly sensitive to stress and starts to shut down when experiencing the Stress Response meaning we get the foggy thinking and struggle to make decisions

  • We appear pale or have flushed skin. As our blood flow is being redirected we might experience feeling cool or like our hands and feet are cold and clammy. Our face might also appear flushed as blood and hormones circulate throughout the body

  • Our senses are heightened. Our peripheral vision increases so we can notice more of the surroundings. Our pupils dilate and let in more light, which helps us to see better. Our smell and hearing are also elevated in order to be more aware of danger.

  • We need the toilet. Muscles in the bladder often relax which means we get a sense of urgency to urinate

  • Blood thickens, which increases clotting factors. This prepares your body for injury

We can be in and out of this fight or flight state many times throughout the day. This means we can be 'on red alert' almost constantly if struggling with anxiety disorders and acute stress, which has dangerous consequences for our health. As your body works hard to prepare for physical activity of the Stress Response it releases stored sugars, glucose, glycogen, nutrients and fats required for the process. This not only drains your body, it also depletes vital stores and takes further energy to release or restore anything converted which hasn't been used. Ineffective digestive and bowel functionality can also lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion and stomach ulcers which are all commonly related to stress. Stress also inhibits the immune system, making you more vulnerable to colds, flu, fatigue and infections. If you feel you are suffering the Stress Response on a regular basis, it would be advisable to make sure you eat nutritious food, hydrate, exercise and practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques to help to lessen the effects.

However as it's often your thoughts triggering the Stress Reaction, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a proven way of addressing your thoughts and behaviour patterns to really treat the cause and lessen overall anxiety. Find out more about how CBT can help you, here.

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