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The human stress response

 ‘Stress’ refers to the biological and psychological reactions to a perceived ‘threat’ from the environment. Being able to automatically perceive and react to a threat in our environment has helped our ancestors survive countless life-threatening situations. This life-saving reaction is designed as a short-term solution to get us out of danger as quickly as possible. If we see a large snake cross our path we will immediately breathe quicker and have our heart-rate speed up to send as much oxygenated blood to our muscles for movement, and to our brain for mental alertness. This stress-response prioritises the parts of our body that we need to get us out of danger, at the cost of pausing other bodily processes such as our appetite, digestion, while certain stress hormones (Corticosteroids) suppress our immune system (Rhen & Cidlowski, 2005).

This essential built-in reaction to perceived threats is both a gift and a curse. If after having encountered a snake, you keep worrying that you’re going to come across another snake and that it will get you next time, your stress response may become excessive or prolonged. This prolonged state of stress over time will have consequences on the body’s growth, metabolism, circulation, reproduction, and immunity, apart from the emotional distress of feeling under threat for longer than necessary (Charmandari, Tsigos, & Chrousos, 2005). So when we activate our stress-response for issues that can’t actually kill us in the moment that we worry about them, we are triggering and stretching out this mechanism which isn’t quite meant for those kinds of threats.

What can we do about it?

Feeling stressed regularly is exhausting and can make us feel quite helpless. However, being aware of what is within our control to regain agency over being in our body encourages a better quality of life. Here’s what we can do:

  • Awareness – Realising that your stress response is being triggered by noticing the symptoms; increased heart and breathing rate, feeling like your thoughts are rushing from one thing to the next in an alarmed state and the excessive ‘butterflies in your stomach’ due to the adrenalin rush, etc… If the stressor is not life-threatening in that moment, it is useful to bring your awareness to this, and to tell yourself that you are safe and your body is trying to protect you. If you are aware that you are in a prolonged state of a stress response, you can then redirect your attention to the following.
  • Exercise – Since the stress response is meant to be followed by a burst of activity to save your life, exercise is one of the most effective ways of releasing that alarmed energy and breaking down excess stress hormones. Any exercise to get your heart rate up for even just 5 minutes will start to break these stress hormones down, while also building up endorphins which make us feel good.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Best done while sitting or lying down, this exercise helps you get familiar with which muscles carry tension and need relaxing. Do not tense any body part to the point of pain or any area which is injured. With your eyes closed, focus on your breath as you breathe in and out slowly, without taking in an excess amount of air.

  Start focusing on one body part at a time – as you breathe in, tense all the muscles in your feet by pointing and scrunching your toes. Hold your breath and feel the tension for five seconds. Release the tension as you exhale. Feel the tension leaving your feet, going out of your body. Notice the change in your feet, notice the relaxed feeling in your muscles, then repeat. Repeat this for other body parts slowly, giving attention to different parts of you. After this, turn your attention back to your breath, how you are feeling, and back to where you are (Soph, 2018).

Amber Tabone practices Gestalt Psychotherapy with individuals and couples at Willingness. While currently reading for a Master’s in Psychotherapy, she has developed an interest in working with relationships, gender, and sexuality thanks to her experience with families and domestic violence issues.

References
Charmandari, E., Tsigos, C., & Chrousos, G. (2005). Endocrinology of the Stress Response. Harvard University Annual Reviews. Retrieved 8 11, 2020, from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/George_Chrousos/publication/8023121_Endocrinology_of_the_stress_response/links/02e7e520a3bf0c3f8d000000/Endocrinology-of-the-stress-response.pdf

Rhen T, Cidlowski JA. (2005). Anti-inflammatory action of glucocorticoids-new mechanisms for old drugs. N Engl J Med 2005; 353:1711.

Soph. (2018). Ways to Relax. Retrieved from drsoph.com: https://drsoph.com/blog/2-foolproof-ways-to-relax