Fight or Flight: How To Deal With Stress We Haven’t Evolved To Deal With

The fight-or-flight response (also called hyperarousal, or the acute stress response) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. It was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon. His theory states that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, preparing the animal for fighting or fleeing. More specifically, the adrenal medulla produces a hormonal cascade that results in the secretion of catecholamines, especially norepinephrine and epinephrine. The hormones estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol, as well as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, also affect how organisms react to stress. This response is recognized as the first stage of the general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebrates and other organisms. -Wikipedia

I will try to explain this phenomenon in layman’s terms. I am a layman indeed, but reading up on this subject made stress and how to deal with it much clearer to me. My attempt here is to transfer that knowledge to anyone it might help.

What Happens When You Experience Intense Stress

When you are threatened by an external factor (stressor), your brain sends all kinds of signals to your body, to prepare you to a) get in a physical fight or b) run for your life.

In the moments following the stressful event, you will feel certain things going on in your body

Your face will become pale and you might feel the blood draining from it. This happens because the blood is going to your muscles to prep them for a fast reaction. You will feel them tremble with anticipation, ready to leap. You will feel your heart racing and, at one point, you might even hear it resonating in your head. Your heart is working hard to pump as much blood to your muscles as possible. You will get tunnel vision and your hearing decrease a little. The peripheral parts of your visual field will blur because spotting potential threat coming from the side is not relevant at a moment like this. The threat stands before you.

At the same time, a couple more things will be going on behind the scenes

Your brain will increase blood coagulation in your body to prevent bleeding out, in case of an injury. It will also lower all fertility processes because reproduction is not important in a moment of crisis. You will also experience a loss of arousal and erection. Your digestion will slow down, too. Nutrients will not be of much use to you, if you are dead in a couple of moments, right? Another thing which your brain does not consider a priority in these moments is your immune system. Battling flu does not seem like a good strategy in life or death moments. In these moments, your only purpose is to survive, by fighting or fleeing.

To sum up: when you are under stress, you reproductive, digestive and immune systems are on halt. Let that sink in.

How To Reduce The Effects Of Stress

All of the aforementioned comes in handy when faced with immediate danger, like a mugger in a dark alley, or a bear approaching you in the woods.  But, how often do you actually face a mugger in your entire life, let alone a hungry bear? You do, however, get stressed at work, probably on a daily basis. Ok, not every stressful event will push you into fight or flight mode, but it happens more often than we would like. Unfortunately, your brain cannot tell the difference between an angry bear and an angry email from your boss or client. Our brains and bodies simply haven’t evolved quickly enough to react appropriately to these modern stressors.

Your body has a way of handling stress, but it can be a slow process

Since we cannot tell our brain what to do with our body when we get stressed, we should just help it resolve the situation in its natural way. Normally, your body should return to homeostasis in 20 to 60 minutes, provided you haven’t not died. This is fine, except, you will most likely not die from receiving an angry email, but you might receive another one during the same day. For every stressful event during your day, you will get up to an hour of feeling flustered, with tunnel vision and reduced immune and reproductive systems. This does not sound healthy, right?

You can help your body resolve the stress using this shortcut

In fight or flight situations, you should, well, fight or flee. After you have done one of these two things and survived, your body and mind will return to normal, faster than if you did nothing. Since it is not appropriate to fight in your workplace (unless you are a professional fighter, of course), you are left with the second option. Running may not be appropriate either, but if you can do any kind of physical exercise, like a brisk walk around the block, a couple of squats or pushups in the storage room (or any place where nobody will think you are out of your mind) will do.

There is a long term solution for better handling stress

Regular physical activity, even when all is calm, will do wonders for your body and mind. It doesn’t have to be anything difficult or time-consuming. Any physical exercise which you enjoy (or, at least, tolerate) will do. A long walk, a yoga session in your bedroom, a swim at the local pool. Find activities that suit your schedule and preferences and be consistent. You will gradually become more energized and will have a clearer mind. Oh, and don’t forget drinking lots of water!

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