Up Close And Personal With The Stress Response
What is stress? Stress is a demand placed on your body. Stress is also the non-specific response to those demands.
Stress is a good thing. Stress mobilizes energy so you can rally and overcome the challenge you are facing. Stress protects you from danger. If you’re getting chased by a cougar, the stress response helps you fight or escape from that cougar.
But stress management is a $13.9 billion industry. Stress is bad when it becomes chronic. We aren’t generally getting chased by cougars, but we are bombarded with stressors and irritants on a daily basis. It’s hard to escape stress. Not only that, we can turn our stress response just by thinking about something stressful. This makes it near impossible to stay away from stress triggers. We never really turn off our stress response anymore.
If we were a deer, and we were chased by a cougar, the stress response would kick in to help us escape the cougar. Once the cougar was gone, the stress trigger was gone, and our body can go through the natural reset process to bring us back to a non-stressed state. As humans, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to go through the natural reset process to bring us back to a balanced energy state because we are bombarded with stressors, we relive stressors, and we anticipate stressors.
Saying “the stress response” is still pretty vague. Let’s dig into what’s happening in our body with stress. Most of us are familiar with the fight or flight response, but it’s a little more nuanced with that. Polyvagal theory identifies three different branches of the stress response.
The newest development in our stress response evolved in primates. This branch emphasized the important of social cues and social interaction. When there’s a potential threat, we look around to see what others are doing, and this determines how we respond. If others don’t perceive a threat, we stay grounded, open and calm. Picture a small child that just fell. The child instinctually looks around to see how others reacted before they react. If we rush over with concern in our faces, it signals that what happened was bad and unsafe, and the child starts crying. If we don’t react, or we react with positive emotions, the child will generally stay calm.
The next branch of the stress response evolved with mammals. This branch is the traditional fight or flight response. When there’s a potential threat and we perceive ourselves as being able to handle this threat, our body mobilizes energy so we can fight or flee. Adrenaline kicks in, our respiration and heart rate increase, all so we can get more energy to our arms and legs. This response also turns off digestion, reproduction and our immune system, as these functions aren’t needed if we are currently being chased by a cougar. If we enter fight mode, we might feel anger, frustration, or irritation, and get fidgety with our hands. If we enter flee mode, we might feel anxiety, worry, panic or fear, and get fidgety with our legs.
The oldest branch of the stress response evolved with lizards. This branch is the freeze response. When there’s a potential threat that we perceive to be beyond our ability to fight or flee from, we enter the freeze mode. When we are in freeze mode our body shuts down and withdraws from external stimuli. It conserves energy, decreases blood pressure, and physically and/or emotionally isolates you. In this mode, we may feel numb, dissociated, withdrawn, trapped, shut down, depressed or hopeless.
In all my years learning about the stress response, I pictured freeze mode to be “deer in the headlights,” literally freezing up in an unhelpful way at an inopportune time. As a result, I never thought I spent much time in the freeze response. With this more nuanced understanding, I realized I spend a lot of time in freeze mode. When my stress level gets really high, I don’t want to talk to people, I numb, I avoid people and any non-essential activity, and I just want to wait it out until it gets better.
What’s really powerful about this deeper understanding of the stress response is the power our perception has over how the stress response impacts us.
If we have a potential threat, and social cues that we trust indicate it’s not a threat, we stay in control and the more protective stress responses don’t kick in.
If we have a potential threat, and we believe we have the ability to handle this threat, we go into fight or flight mode to handle this threat.
If we have a potential threat, and we believe it is beyond our ability to handle it, we go into freeze mode to withdraw from the threat.
What can we do with this information? Stay tuned for the next blog post where I’ll cover some strategies to impact the stress response.
NicheHacks, (2018, December 18). Stress Yourself Into This $13.9 Billion Dollar Niche That Has Millions Of People Frustrated For Relief. Retrieved from https://nichehacks.com/stress-niche/
Porges, S., (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. W. W. Norton & Company.