Stress and the Body: What you experience and the facts

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Serena Wadhwa
Written by Serena Wadhwa

Ever been surprised by the appearance of a tiger at your door? Chances are, probably not; however, your mind may have for a split second, thought, whoa, wait, what?-a Tiger at my door?—and you may have noticed a slight increase in your breathing and heart rate and maybe some other symptoms. That’s the “flight-fight” response in action, a physiological response that automatically occurs when there’s a perceived threat, demand or pressure at hand.

In evolutionary terms, the flight-fight response played a part in our survival. Back in the day (and I do mean, way back in the day) when the perception of threats was really the threat of predators attacking, the flight-fight response allowed us the chance to run in order to protect our life. Literally. However, nowadays, there’s rarely that same threat that looms over us (a boss may sometimes feel like a predatory tiger out to get you; however, he or she is literally not going to kill you as a hungry tiger will), yet the body responds in the same way, as it “senses” danger at the threat, demand or pressure. So you respond and usually when the sense of the tiger was present, ran. And then you were safe. And the reaction dissipated and your body stabilized and things went back to “normal”. However, in the modern world, this doesn’t happen as easily.

When an individual experiences the flight-fight response, there’s less of a window that the recovery period occurs (when the body goes back to the resting period) before the next stressor occurs to trigger another “flight-fight” response and sometimes this can happen over and over for an individual. When this occurs, it is often challenging to experience a recovery period, because in the “flight-fight’ response, these are elevated to help the organism adapt to whatever needs to happen at that moment (fight or run). While there is more that may occur, the bottom line is that this response occurs automatically. (Known as the “alarm” stage”.)

When this reaction happens over a period, mobilizing resources from the body to weather extreme demands, threats, or pressure, the body adapts. In this “resistance” stage, the body gets a “second wind” experience and pushes through. However, there is a price. Cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, hormones that in small amounts “do the body good” because they do serve a purpose to keep the body running efficiently, start to be like guests that stay too long and take from places they are not supposed to. For example, the body may begin to utilize some protein that is initially utilized for muscles to help with the immune system. Excessive cortisol can lead to increased calorie consumption and weight gain and possible abdominal fat, (although for some individuals it may result in loss of appetite as it may decrease taste and smell functions.) In the chronic state of stress, the hormones mentioned above also affect the cardiovascular system, your heart, circulatory system, etc. Since the flight-fight response increases one’s heart rate and blood pressure, an individual who is in a chronic state of stress is in jeopardy of a consistent increased heart rate and blood pressure, which can be detrimental, as it increases the risk for heart attacks, strokes, or other medical issues. Another consequence of cortisol is the production of glucose from the liver. While this happens in the flight-fight response, if an individual experiences chronic stress, this is a repeated occurrence. Usually, the body can absorb any excess blood sugar to help maintain some balance and “homeostasis”. Yet, what if the body can’t? For some individuals, and depending on what’s going on with the body, mind, environment, coping mechanisms, etc. the body may not be able to do much and thus, becomes more vulnerable to diabetes (blood sugar) or other conditions. By the time the body reaches the exhaustion stage, the body is depleted of resources and is unable to continue responding to the demands that are present, and thus, the body continues to “break down”. Stress-induced insomnia, headaches, reproductive issues, muscular atrophy, mental and cognitive dysfunctions, aging, neurological disorders, and other medical conditions can trigger. Over 75% of doctor visits are attributed to stress-related issues. Thus, learning how to deal with stress effectively is one way to help keep your body running smoothly.

So how do to this? One study indicated that 20 minutes of relaxation contributes to decreasing stress about 50%. This may be motivation to regain some leverage towards homeostasis. Here are two easy ways to start that process:

  1. Deep breathing: While you are breathing as you read this, chances are you are only using 1/3 of your lungs. This is part of the flight-fight response in that the shallow, rapid breathing allows a quick reaction to the stressor. When you activate deep breathing and utilize the diaphragm, a muscle below the ribcage, you allow more oxygen into your lungs. The benefit? More oxygen into your blood, brain, and body, which helps you focus, concentrate, slow down, and make better judgments. Breathing in through your nose, allow your belly to expand as your chest remains relatively still. You can probably find a video online (or check one of mine). If you keep your hand on your belly, you will feel it rise. When you exhale, do so through your nose as well, as you feel your hand lower.
  2. Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR). Under the flight-fight reaction and when we experience chronic stress, most individuals experience more tension. It may be challenging to realize that another state than this exists. Progressive Muscular Relaxation potentially retains your brain and body to recognize that this state is a reality. While there are many resources on the Internet to assist you with this, here is a simple one to begin this process. If you do experience any chronic pain or conditions, check with your primary care doctor first.

Sitting in a chair, with your feet flat on the floor, support your arms with your legs, letting your arms relax onto your lap. With your left hand, make a fist as tight as possible, without drawing blood or causing pain. Hold this tight fist for a moment. Then slowly relax the grip, allowing your palm to open up and allow the palm to face up. Shake it out and return it back to your lap. Compare the left forearm to the sensations of the right forearm. What do you notice? Some people notice some tingling, warmth, a difference in weight. These are indications that your left forearm is more relaxed than your right. This is what PMR does. It systematically relaxes the muscles, so that tension doesn’t build up, as in this day and age, most people do not get a chance to release that. With PMR, you go through each muscle group to tense and relax them so that the brain can subtle note the differences and you can experience how it is different to be tense and relaxed.

I am curious to know how these work for you and what questions you have about stress and it’s management. After all, you can raise your SQ!.

Photo Credit: Florian Simeth

About the author

Serena Wadhwa

Serena Wadhwa

Serena Wadhwa, Psy.D., LCPC, CADC, is an assistant professor/program coordinator at Governors State University. She provides individual therapy at the Alexian Brothers Outpatient Group Practice. Dr. Wadhwa works in a variety of roles as a consultant, creator, presenter, trainer, lecturer, and author. She is also a member of several professional organizations. She has a book on "Stress in the Modern World" coming out in 2016. Her book on Stress Intelligence: 365 Ways to Increase Yours, will be out in 2015. Her last project was an Internet Radio Show, Moving Forward: Wellness One Step at a Time. http://www.voiceamerica.com/show/2324/moving-forward-wellness-one-step-at-a-time. She is currently on a different path and is working on figuring that out. Yoga, writing, comedy, and the extraordinary are definite parts. And ashrams. Well maybe just a couple more of those.

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