When you feel stressed, whether you face a real threat or merely think that you are facing a threat, your body experiences a collection of changes known as your stress response, or your fight-or-flight response. Your stress response is a set of physiological changes that take place when you sense a threat, i.e., when you encounter circumstances where you believe the demands exceed your capacity to deal. Stressors are these circumstances. A stressor might be physical, such as a robber, or psychological, such as an impending deadline at work, or it can be environmental, such as a mental stressor like recurrent job loss anxiety.
The amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing emotions, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus when a stressful event occurs. Adrenocorticotropic hormone and corticotropin-releasing hormone, two hormones that are released in the fight-or-flight response, activate the pituitary and adrenal glands. These glands then release the hormones cortisol, noradrenaline, and adrenaline into the bloodstream, causing a number of physiological changes in your body, including an adrenaline rush and an acceleration of your heartbeat. These hormones prepare your body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety.
The three stages of fight-or-flight are:
• THE ALARM STAGE: Your body is getting ready to fight or flee during this stage when your central nervous system is heightened.
• THE RESISTANCE STAGE: During this phase, the body tries to return to normal and recover from the heightened fight-or-flight reaction that it experienced initially.
• THE EXHAUSTION STAGE: If the first two stages repeatedly take place over time, as when under prolonged stress, the body may feel exhausted and start to break down.
Preparing your body for action, prepares you to perform under pressure. So, situation-induced stress can actually help and increase your chances of effectively coping with threats. This kind of stress can help you perform better in situations where you are under pressure to perform well. Also, when the threat is life-threatening, the fight-or-flight response plays an important role in survival. By preparing for fight-or-flight, your response increases your chances of surviving danger.
While the fight-or-flight reaction is automatic, it is not always accurate. We may react this way even when there is no real threat. This is because both real and imaginary threats can trigger the fight-or-flight response. Always being in a fight or flight state, such as when exposed to stressors repeatedly, can also be detrimental to your health. Chronic stress can increase your risk of chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, migraines, etc. Therefore, it becomes important to understand the body's natural fight-or-flight response to help cope with such situations.
What can you do with this information, you might ask? When you notice that you are becoming tense, you can start looking for ways to calm down by using self-soothing skills and coping skills that help you to relax your body. If you find a skill not working for you, it is essential to try another skill that might work to relax your body, but if you find yourself struggling to relax with various skills you can consult a mental health professional who can help you find ways to do so.
By: Dhihum Kour
Mental Health Counseling Intern