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Your Stress Response

Eric Dean JD, MBA, MA, MA, LPC, CADC

Stress is universal: everyone at some point in their lives will experience it. Stress can stem from work, relationships, anxiety or pretty much anything. In fact, stress can happen without a direct cause, or stimulus. Stress, understandably, has a negative connotation. However, it is not always a bad thing to be stressed in certain situations. A moderate amount of stress is beneficial to athletic and academic performance, for example. Athletes tend to perform better when they go into a game with some stress versus no stress. Students tend to do better on exams when they begin with some stress, but not too much. When stress is positive or beneficial it is called Eustress. The other kind of stress, which many people try to avoid, is called distress. This post will focus on distress.

The stress response is associated with the fight, flight, or freeze system (FF system) that is hardwired in all of us. Thousands of years ago, when human beings were hunter gatherers, the FF system kept us alive by activating when we were in immediate danger. For example, when faced with the threat of a bear, we had to make a quick decision on whether to fight the bear, run from the bear, or do nothing. We were able to make that quick, involuntary decision because of the FF system. When the FF system is activated it triggers the release of epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol (stress hormone) throughout the body, which in turn causes flared nostrils, increased heart and respiratory rate, flushed skin, and dilated pupils. The flared nostrils occur because the body is preparing itself to take in more air in case of flight or fight; the increased respiratory and heart rate provide additional energy to the body; the flushed skin occurs because the blood is distributed away from the skin elsewhere, including to the brain; and the dilated pupils provide better vision of the surroundings. As you can see, the FF system was essential to our survival and part of the reason that human beings are still around!

Today, the FF system is still with us, but certainly not as useful. While we are faced with dangerous situations from time to time, it is usually to a much lesser extent. The FF system is about survival so it will activate often, even when it is a false alarm – it is better to activate when there is no danger than to not activate when there is danger. This is why many of our worries and anxieties do not come to fruition or are not as severe as we expect. The FF system is often activated in non-life-threatening situations, perhaps when we get a nasty email from someone. Getting worked up over an email is usually not the ideal response, but the FF system may be activated and prompt someone to take immediate action by responding to the email in kind. This type of response may get us in trouble and is an example of how the system that kept us alive for thousands of years can now make our situation worse. However, that does not mean the FF system is entirely useless.

When you feel yourself being activated, pay attention to your physiological responses and the reason you are feeling that way. Perhaps your body is trying to tell you something. A lot of times we can get a bad feeling about a situation, without any concrete data or evidence to back it up, that turns out to be on point and causes us to remove ourselves from it. Thus, the FF system can indicate risk or vulnerability that we can respond to. However, when the FF system is activated, and not properly controlled or managed, it can lead to anxiety or even panic attacks.

The first step to managing your stress response is to identify that it is occurring. After you have identified it, try to recognize your thoughts and dilute the negativity with some positivity, including a mantra like “I am grateful” or a statement like “This is temporary.” By slowing and disrupting the momentum of the negative thought cycles associated with high levels of stress, you will be able to alleviate some of it. In future blog posts I will be going into much more depth about how to manage stress so please keep an eye on the Symmetry Counseling blog!

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