The phone rings.
It’s your doctor.
The nurse said you’d get the results in a couple of weeks but it’s only been two days!
Immediately your breathing changes, you feel flush in your face, you rear back away from the phone.
What is happening?
When we experience stress, it impacts our entire person, both mind and body. We can feel a sense of panic and a desire to retreat from whatever may be causing us possible harm. But how and why does that happen?
Stress is a survival mechanism. Long ago when we were much more likely to be trampled by giant herbivores or chased by free roaming predators, we needed a mechanism that could help us escape or fight for our lives. It’s called our “fight or flight” response. When faced with potential harm our body turns off the things it does not need and focusses only on the things it does need.
The challenge of modern man is that though we have built our civilizations and caged our predators, we as organisms have not yet evolved away from our fight or flight stress response. As a result, our brains, when sensing danger, turn on that same old switch, only now the danger may not be an angry buffalo, it might be an argument with your spouse, or a surprise inspection, or a speeding taxi cab. Either way, our body can’t really tell the difference. Psychologists refer to this as a “hot” response, that is, one that is unreasonable and automatic, as opposed to a “cool” response which involves reason and self-management.
The American Psychological Association points out the following effects on the body in response to stress:
When presented with a potentially dangerous stimulus (the brain isn’t good at telling the difference between everyday stress and life threatening stress) the body releases cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones switch off parts of the body that are not essential to immediate survival and send those extra resources to the parts of the body that can help the body survive.
Muscle and Bone
The muscles enter a state of guardedness in which they can act quickly. This can be a good thing, like for an athlete who needs to respond quickly while playing, but it is bad for the body when it carries on uncontrolled. When you are stressed out, you can usually sense it in how the shoulders clench up and the tongue presses against the roof of the mouth.
When threatened, the body needs oxygen to feed the muscles, and your breathing rate increases. This may not be a bad thing unless you have asthma or a breathing disorder. It could help explain why asthma sufferers can have attacks when stressed, or why some people hyperventilate which can cause lightheadedness.
The blood carries oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. Under stress the heart speeds up and pumps harder so that muscles have what they need to act instantly ((like slamming on the brakes to avoid a car accident). The heart may help you avoid that car accident, but if your heart is pumping like that on and off for days because you’re worried about an exam you have to take, it takes a negative toll on your heart muscles.
To support this fight or flight response, the liver produces more blood sugar – the energy for the body. Normally this would get reabsorbed without notice, but for someone with, or prone to, diabetes, it can be very dangerous.
Under stress the stomach reacts oddly. The “butterflies” we feel are a result of blood being sent away from the stomach to be given to the muscles to aid in fight or flight. It can be a strong indicator of when we are stressed or nervous, but if that stress happens over and over again it can cause the stomach to develop chronic pain or ulcers.
As we can see, stress can be a life saving reaction, or a life threatening state of existence. The key to managing chronic stress is to find ways to turn off these physical stress responses when they are not needed to survive.