In the ‘Building Resilience’ webinars, I’ve delivered to c1000 people during lockdown; I cover how your body reacts to stress, i.e. The Stress Response. Through the feedback I’ve received, it’s become apparent that many people don’t understand our biological response to stress and its long-term effects on the body and mind if left untreated.
When we experience strong negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, and overwhelm, it triggers the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response in our nervous system. Firmly rooted in our DNA, this reaction is an inbuilt safety mechanism that originates back to our ‘caveman’ days; explicitly designed to help us deal with physical threats in the most appropriate way.
The same biochemical stress reaction that enabled our distant ancestors to escape from danger, e.g. a saber-toothed tiger attack, remains a constant human trait today. No doubt you’ve experienced it yourself; for example, when you walk down a street on a dark night, and you hear footsteps approaching, it is entirely reasonable for your nervous system to trigger the stress response to enable you to fight, run or freeze.
When we trigger the stress response, our body floods with hormones such as cortisol (commonly referred to as the stress hormone), adrenaline, and norepinephrine; this provides us with a burst of energy allowing us to either stand and fight, run away, or freeze/hide until the threat passes.
However, the same biochemicals get released in reaction not only to a physical danger but also to perceived threats. For example, the stress response could be triggered by an email from someone you don’t like, continually worrying about the future, overthinking, imagining problems where they don’t exist, consistent negative thought patterns, consistently expecting the worst, etc. Your body reacts this way because your mind cannot tell the difference between real and imagined threats and reacts in exactly the same way.
However, today, it isn’t appropriate to run away; fighting is socially unacceptable, and therefore, we inevitably freeze. The problem with that is that the same biochemicals that allow us to react appropriately to a ‘real’ life threat enter our bloodstream but aren’t able to burn off through the burst of physical energy for which they are designed.
Left unused, these chemicals build up in the bloodstream and over time, suppress our immune systems. Ultimately if left untreated, the accumulation of chemicals can result in physical (e.g. diabetes, heart problems, etc.) and mental (e.g. stress, anxiety, depression, etc.) illnesses.
How to recognise if you’re triggering your stress response
If you experience any of the following (this list is not exhaustive), you could be trigging your stress response:
- Tightness in the chest
- Fluttering in the chest
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Erratic thinking patterns
- Trouble concentrating
- Tears/crying for seemingly no reason
- Excessive procrastination
- Working too much/too little
According to Mind (the mental health charity), one in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England. If you recognise that you need some support in managing your mental health, please reach out to a friend, colleague, family member, coach, or healthcare professional.
How to manage your stress response
If you recognise any of the above symptoms, THE very best thing you can do immediately to reduce the stress effects is to EXERCISE.
If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The stress response is designed to give us a spurt of energy; so it stands to reason that by doing something that raises your heart rate, you will burn off those potentially harmful chemicals, preventing a build-up. Exercising also releases a new set of biochemicals, including endorphins (the feel-good hormone) and dopamine (which helps you to feel calm and aids sound sleep).
Many people balk at the thought of having to exercise; however, it does not have to mean a six-mile hike or running a half-marathon. Twenty minutes of walking (where you raise your heart rate – you should still be able to hold a conversation), a minimum of three times a week will make a significant difference to your health, especially if you do it regularly.
Another, slightly longer-term solution to help minimise the stress response is to learn how to manage your emotions by changing your thoughts. When we learn to control our thoughts, we can stop the stress response from triggering unnecessarily to perceived threats (of course, even when we learn to do that, exercise is still critical to our well-being!).
Click here to read my blog post ‘Change Your Thoughts’ to learn some quick, easy ways to manage and control your unhelpful thinking patterns.