Imagine that you are in the middle of the forest all by yourself. You are enjoying the scenery, the sunshine, and the greenery surrounding you. You snap a selfie. You pop some trail mix. Suddenly, on the trail you spot a female black bear and her two cubs eyeing you up. She doesn’t look pleased to see you.
A physiological response begins. Your senses are heightened. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and the blood from your extremities and digestive system travel to your internal organs to protect them and give you the strength and energy to take action. Additionally, your liver excretes sugar, your adrenal gland releases adrenaline, and your body perspires while your breath becomes rapid and shallow. Your body is preparing to take action, and glucose releases a substance called ATP which gives you energy to fight, flee, or freeze. Essentially, your body thinks, “Kill it or it kills me.” You are now in survival mode.
Roughly 80 years ago the term “Fight or Flight” was developed to explain what happens to the body when a perceived or actual threat occurs. Recently, the term “freeze” was added to this hyper-aroused physical and mental state. Researchers believe that the body prepares to stay and fight, run, or freeze when a threat occurs. This response takes place in the amygdala, deep in the limbic system. This area in your brain is the seat of your emotional memory and helps to tell you whether or not you are safe or if you should be on high alert. Think of it like the body’s anxiety switch. If you didn’t have an amygdala, you wouldn’t respond well to a feared situation. You also wouldn’t survive very long. In fact, some early humans 280,000 years ago didn’t survive because of this.
During this heightened state your sympathetic nervous system is activated. Normally, the fight, flight, or freeze responses are controlled by the intensity and duration of the threat. Once you are safe from the bear your parasympathetic nervous system starts to kick in and you are able to relax. Your breathing returns to a normal state, your blood pressure decreases, and the blood in your body becomes more evenly distributed again.
But what if that bear is your boss? Or your partner? Or the daily news? What if your stressors are chronic? A physical or emotional threat creates a similar bodily response. Stress and anxiety can be a result of a fight, flight, or freeze response on overdrive.
Eventually a new level of anxiety is accepted by the brain and body as “normal.”
Everyday life stressors can build up and lead to chronic anxiety or even panic attacks. Anxiety can often be the result of real or perceived stress to the body. Too much stress can build up and wear you out. We’ve all heard the term, “What goes up, must come down,” right? Well, when you’re at a heightened state for too long, your brain and body cannot sustain itself. You may start to shut down and might even become depressed. In fact, neuroimaging has shown that those with depression have more activity in the amygdala. When your amygdala is activated, you are unable to handle complex tasks.
Now, imagine being anxious and stressed constantly. You essentially become inefficient and inept at managing daily life tasks. Simple activities take you three times as long and you make considerably more mistakes.
Stress actually suppresses brain growth, consolidation of memory, and the development of new neurons.
Stress also releases hormones in the body. Most notably, cortisol. Cortisol readies the body for the fight, flight, or freeze response. Too much cortisol can actually make your hippocampus smaller. This is the area of your brain that processes long-term memory and learning.
This hormone is also related to mental and physical issues such as high blood pressure, depression, suppressed immune systems, inflammation, headaches, stroke, blood clots, heart disease, cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, indigestion, constipation, chronic diarrhea, muscle spasms, back pain, tics, tremors, accidents, low growth hormone, fatigue, insomnia, obesity, hair loss, acne, abdominal fat, anxiety, infertility, memory problems, skin rashes, high cholesterol, and pre-term labor. Just to name a few.
All this talk about stress stressing you out?
Well, there’s good news. You can definitely take steps to manage the stressors in your life. Breathing techniques as well as progressive muscle relaxation are excellent ways to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and help your body relax. Often times it’s very difficult to tell yourself to just chill out. You need to target your body and eventually your brain will catch up.
As always, exercise, good sleep habits, and balanced nutrition are key to wellness. Eating low inflammatory foods such as green leafy vegetables and walnuts will help decrease your body’s stress response. Sure, you’re going to react to stress, but when you are eating well, your body might not respond as intensely.
Finding support from friends, family, and coworkers might mitigate some of the everyday life stressors you’re experiencing. However, often times some of the stress we experience comes from those closest to us. Therefore, working with a professional counselor might be the best way to obtain support and guidance. A therapist can teach you techniques and coping strategies to manage stress, anxiety, and depression. A therapist can also help you learn to set boundaries and work on developing healthier relationships in your life.
A therapist might even suggest seeing a psychiatrist for medication management. Remember how I said that stress can suppress brain growth? Well, antidepressants may actually work by creating new neurons, or neurogenesis. Anti-anxiety medications may also be an option, especially if you’re experiencing panic attacks.
We will never be able to rid ourselves of stress. After all, it’s actually meant to help us survive. However, when the system goes on overdrive, it’s like we’re living 24/7 with that black bear and her adorable cubs. Yet, it’s not so adorable for us.