A Guide to Understanding Our Stress Response

Stress is an inevitability in our lives. No matter how resilient or robust we are. Whether we stay cool in tough situations or not. Some of us may become stressed around big life events. For others, it may be a gradual build up of small things. Stress can turn up when we least expect it or not materialize when do. It can cause physical symptoms like headaches or migraines, digestive issues, aches and pains and larger health concerns. As well as emotional and cognitive symptoms such as negative thought patterns and difficult or uncontrollable emotions. But however we process our stress, exhibit it or experience it. One of the most important skills we can develop in life are those that help us manage it.

Why Understanding Stress is Crucial

I’ve been working on my stress management for years. Trying different techniques and coping mechanisms. Some tried and tested by those around me. Others that I’ve had to experiment with myself. And I’ve had varying degrees of success. We all need to give different strategies a try and find what works for us. There’s no one size fits all when it comes to stress management. So, a tailor made approach which fits our lifestyle and purpose is what we need.

But there is one technique that I believe can be helpful to all of us. No matter who we are or where or when are stress occurs. All the stress management techniques in the world only helped take me so far. Until I learnt to understand the body’s stress response. Understanding the science of stress not only helped me understand my own personalized stress and where it may come from. But by acknowledging my possible triggers it’s helped me develop a more personalized stress management strategy. By understanding stress we are better placed to create that individualized and specific plan.

Read more about stress management techniques here.

The Science of Stress

Many of us may be familiar with our fight, flight or freeze mechanism. It’s the action taken by our sympathetic nervous system, which is one branch of our autonomic nervous system. The fight, flight or freeze mechanism is our body’s alarm system which triggers when we detect a threat to our environment. If we think back to our caveman days, when a hunter realized there was a sabre tooth tiger or woolly mammoth nearby, the fight, flight or freeze instinct would kick-in. The hunter’s body would maximize it’s potential to do one of three things. Either:

  1. Fight, and hope to win.
  2. Flight, run away as fast as possible.
  3. Freeze, stay very still and hope the threat walked on by.

In order to allow us to do this, our fight, flight or freeze mechanism optimizes the bodily functions we need to make these processes successful. For example, contract our lungs to maximize breathing, releasing adrenaline and pumping more blood to our muscles. Likewise, it minimizes any non-essential bodily functions. For example, our digestive function is minimized as digesting dinner isn’t a priority when our life is in danger. Hence why many of us experience the feeling of butterflies in our stomach and feel nauseated when we’re stressed.

A Stress Mismatch

This response to stress existed primarily to protect from life-threatening danger. In a time when most threats were physically dangerous but also short-term. Thus, the fight, flight and freeze mechanism optimizes our bodily functions short term. Staying in fight, flight or freeze long-term was never the true intention. However, our autonomic nervous system hasn’t evolved as quickly as the world around us. In the 21st century, when most of our stressors are non-life threatening and long term, we’re essentially still using old technology. Whilst fight, flight or freeze will still be helpful to us if we face a physical threat e.g. a housefire. It won’t be much use to us when we’re approaching a deadline or have an exam.

In fact, for 21st century stressors, fight, flight or freeze can even be self-defeating and make it hard to think straight or focus. This mismatch of stressor and stress solution also explains why stress is so exhausting. Fight, flight or freeze is physically taxing on our bodies and is intended short-term. But due to the change in the nature of the stressors we face, we’re staying in it far longer than intended.

The Science of Calm

Luckily for us, our autonomic nervous system has a second branch. A sister branch to our sympathetic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system. Where the sympathetic nervous system is fight, flight and freeze. The parasympathetic nervous system is rest and digest. Ideally when a short-term stressor triggers fight, flight or freeze mechanism, our body optimizes to fight off the danger. Once the threat passes, our rest and digest mechanism can kickstart. Returning our body to homeostasis; the equilibrium where the sympathetic and parasympathetic balance each other out. For example, the sympathetic nervous system would make our heart beat far faster than we can sustain. But our parasympathetic nervous system lowers the rate of our heart beat to a safe level which sustains us on a daily basis.

So, when we enter rest and digest our lungs are able to relax as we no longer need increased lung capacity. Our heart rate can slow down as we don’t need to pump as much blood to different muscles. Once we’re safe, bodily functions which were minimized return to their normal functioning. For example, our immune system isn’t functioning to it’s full ability during fight, flight and freeze. Because we’re not thinking about fighting off long term illness when our life is under physical threat. But once the threat is over, we need our immune system back to full functionality. This explains why we can catch more colds or stomach bugs when we’re stressed and in fight, flight or freeze.

Tricking Our Stress Response

As mentioned above, most of our 21st century stressors are long-term and non-life threatening. Meaning we’re staying in fight, flight or freeze longer and our rest and digest state can become a distant memory. But, this doesn’t have to be the case. There are ways that we can ‘trick’ our parasympathetic nervous system into kickstarting even when our body still perceives a threat such as an upcoming deadline or giving a speech. We can do this by mimicking some of the behaviours that would usually signal to our parasympathetic nervous system that we’re safe and can safely rest and digest.

Deep Breathing

One way to do this is to allow our lungs to fully relax. During fight, flight and freeze they’ve contracted to allow maximum lung capacity. But in a state of calm we don’t need this extra capacity. By allowing our lungs to fully relax we signal to our body that we’re no longer in danger. So, how do we relax our lungs? We do it by deep breathing, also known as belly breathing, which focuses on a longer outer breath. Examples of this are 4 breaths in and 8 breaths out. Or 7/11 breathing, 7 breaths in and 11 breaths out. Or varieties on a theme.

But the key focus is this longer out of breath. This longer exhalation returns our lungs to a relaxed state and fully empties our lungs of all the stale air that may not make it out when we’re breathing rapidly when under threat. Deep breaths relax and fully empty our lungs signalling our readiness for rest and digest.

Massage & Touch

Another way to trigger rest and digest is massage. Whether it’s a soothing massage at a spa or the simple act of moisturizing your limbs or having a relaxing shower. When we’re in fight, flight or freeze our muscles receive optimum blood flow. Allowing them to work harder or faster. This causes them to tense in readiness for action and explains why aches and pains are a symptom of stress. To combat this tension the act of massage and rubbing helps the muscles relax. Thereby signalling to our body that we don’t need to be in fight, flight or freeze anymore and letting our parasympathetic nervous system take over with it’s rest and digest state.

These are just two examples of how we can help our bodies overcome it’s stress response. It’s unsurprising that these are also two of the more common or popular stress management techniques. And a solid understanding of stress helps explain why they work and can be so effective for many of us.

Likewise, understanding when your stress response starts and tracking it, if you’d like to, may shed some light on what the cause of your stress is too. For me, I’ve worked out that control is a running theme. This has allowed me to tailor my stress response to include strategies that help me retain control such as having multiple options or planning in advance to minimize errors. However you manage your stress, and whether or not you choose to use these techniques, I hope that an understanding of your stress response helps you understand yourself and your stress better.

Read more about the importance of breath here.

For an excellent, and more thorough, introduction to the autonomic nervous system watch here.

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17 thoughts on “A Guide to Understanding Our Stress Response

  1. Great post! I have been practicing breathing techniques lately and I agree they really help. I also got a handheld massager for Xmas (my family’s way of telling me I’m a stress ball) and that helps relieve the tension in my neck and shoulders.

  2. I love posts that encourage personal development / wellness that include scientific data and evidence to explain why a given technique is effective. This post was perfect for me! Thanks for sharing. Joan

  3. Great post. And informative also.!
    This is one of the interesting subject I wrote about on my blog.
    Stress management appears easy. One has to select the methods to manage the stress in daily life depending on the outcome we experience.
    Thanks for sharing !

    1. Agreed. What works for one person won’t always work for another. It so important for stress management to be person-centered.

  4. This is so useful as I think if you can understand something on a level that normalizes it and helps us see why we respond the way we do, etc will help us to feel less anxious about it all. I know that deep breathing helps me and also counting things to sort of ground myself, etc. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. Excellent post! It’s so important understand what stress is, how it works and how our bodies responds. Every is different which means our response to stress will be different. Understanding this will help us find the right stress management tools that will work for us. Thanks for sharing and thanks for the lovely tips.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Once I learnt about how stress worked it really helped me figure out some of the causes of my stress

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