Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Stress and the modern day fight/flight

As part of my recent studies in animal anatomy I’ve been learning about the nervous system. Something that peaked my interest was the fight/flightresponse and it’s affects on humans in the modern era. 
To summarize the fight/flight response, when an animal is put in a dangerous situation (for example a predator is approaching) hormones are released in the brain which affect the body in a myriad of ways, including the following:
  •          blood pressure increases
  •          heart and respiration rate increase
  •          digestion slows or stops
That all seems pretty helpful if you have to run or fight for your life, but in the modern world humans don’t face predators on a day-to-day basis, yet our fight/flight responses kick in most days anyway. Why? Stress.
That heart-racing feeling you get when the deadline is looming or the paperwork is piling up, is your fight/flight response: your body actually wants to bolt away. And maybe the best thing to do is let it (well, at least to walk away calmly).
We all know stress makes us sick but what you may not be aware of is just how quickly or how sick stress can make you. After an initial boost in immune response (thought to aid any injuries received during the fight or flight) the body’s immunity is suppressed, so if your stress continues for hours or days then your immune system is not working and you are far more prone to infections. Having your digestion stop working causes its own set of issues, from diarrhea to mild malnutrition as you stop being able to gain the nutrients from the food you are eating.
Most people are aware that stress also stops you sleeping or wakes you up at night; this is due to the increased heart rate and the fact that your body can’t tell the difference between stress when you are awake and stress when you’re dreaming. Even those stressful dreams you have create the same hormonal secretions in the brain that cause the symptoms described.
I’ve only touched on the physiological (body) effects but the psychological (mental) effects and behavioural effects are just as serious. As your mind spins you’ll be less able to concentrate and may even experience forms of anxiety, depression or anger. Behavioural effects come into play when we self-medicate to alleviate the symptons: over eating or using drugs and alcohol to ‘relieve stress’ are common reactions.
So what can we do? Take that walk your body is expecting; if you TRULY can’t get away long enough for a 5 minute stroll then walk to the kitchen for a glass of water. At least the change of environment will help clear your head and the water will aid hydration (helping any digestion issues you may be subconsciously having). Lastly, breathing exercises are awesome for training your brain you aren’t about to be eaten by that pile of work, so will alleviate the symptoms.
What stresses you out, and what do you do to relieve stress?

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