Stresshack #2: Stressed by Stress?


When stress hits, sometimes all bets are off and even the best loses it. That’s bad, right? Like, maybe, even… very bad? To be avoided, as in, cool is best (“I should be the picture of calm and I am anything but”)… Why can’t I react any better than this, one may ask. Or, why does my reaction need to be always this strong? The heart beat needle reaches the red zone, sweat breaks out, it’s hard to talk coherently, it’s like the world is ending this minute, muscles tense all over the body and the stomach cramps, adding to the misery… Often all this goes on mostly inside, while struggling to keep a semi normal appearance. Often, this goes on for a while, even a long while, while frantically working on a response that actually makes sense and addresses the stressor (“do I fight it, do I run, or am I frozen in place and can’t decide?”)

And when all of this occurs, and because it does occur this way (or worse), it adds to whatever stressor caused it to begin. The stress reaction becomes stressful in itself. It becomes a state of being, a condition, a problem of its own. So can anything be done to change this? Take the jump and find out.

First, the stress reaction is good. It is normal. It is necessary for survival, for learning and for personal growth. The biological and emotional stress reaction can be compared to lights on the dashboard, which may be the very large and prominent light that glows bright red when a major stressor triggers it, or the smaller ones that glow orange or a pale yellow when the stressor is minor.

The body reacts to these alarm lights with a predictable and rather universal set of physical changes.

Immediate universal physiological changes resulting from the stress reaction:

Increased central nervous system activity

Increased mental activity and brainwave activity

Increased secretion of adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenalin (norepinephrine), and cortisol into the bloodstream and into every cell in the body

Increased heart rate, cardiac output , and blood pressure

Increased breathing rate, breathing airways dilatation

Increased metabolism,  oxygen consumption, oxygen to the brain

Blood diverted away from the digestive tract and directed into the muscles and limbs

Increased muscle contraction which leads to increased strength

Increased blood coagulation (blood clotting ability)

Increased circulation of free fatty acids, sources of energy

Increased output of blood cholesterol

Increased blood sugar released by the liver to nourish the muscles

Release of endorphins from the pituitary gland

Pupils of the eyes dilate

Hair stands on its end

Blood thins

Sweat glands increase secretion

Increased secretion from apocrine glands resulting in foul body odor

Capillaries under the surface of the skin constrict (which consequently increases blood pressure)

Immune system is suppressed

Constriction of blood vessels, except to running and fighting muscles

Reproductive and sexual systems stop working normally

Digestive system stops metabolizing food normally

Excretory system turns off

Saliva dries up

Decreased perception of pain

Kidneys decrease output, bowel and bladder reduce activity 

No one needs to command the body to respond in this way. It is programmed in the genetic code. Moreover, it cannot be ordered not to occur. At best, one can learn to control what is visible to others and, in some individuals, even the heart rate can be somewhat controlled. But the light goes off, and stress reaction occurs no matter what—with varying degrees of intensity depending on individual circumstances.

This is good in two ways. First, when there is a danger or threat of some sort (e.g., a bus coming straight at us) we are immediately, one can even say instantaneously, aroused and primed for action (so we stay out or step out of the bus’s path without really planning to do so, it just happens.) When it works out this way, we have a chance to avoid and/or survive many physical threats to our well being. This ability to immediately mobilize our resources is what enabled a relatively weak human race to survive and thrive even in the face of wild beasts, earthquakes, fires, wars and what not in our long history on this planet. Can we imagine surviving very long without this stress reaction alarm system?

Second, we are programmed to respond not only to physical threats but also, and more importantly in our society, to non-physical threats that are emotional, social or psychological in nature. This is a very good feature, as most threats nowadays no longer come from wild beasts but from circumstances of social living, such as relationships, jobs, economics, politics, healthcare, and technology. The light on our dashboard goes off, and rightly so, to alert us that a loss may occur or has occurred in one of these areas of our life, or simply to warn us that something requires our attention.

The stress reaction alarm system has done its job. Now we can choose to address the situation, i.e. appropriately respond to the challenge that it presents.

However, we can also be so caught up in the stress reaction that it no longer simply represents the light on our dashboard that we observe, are warned by and which prompts us to take action. In chronic stress, we become transfixed by the light, paralyzed by its pulsating glow, incapable of moving beyond its mesmerizing message of danger. In other words, we cannot adequately respond to the stressor because we are too busy staring at the light, feeling our body reactions, being stressed by the stress, as in, “don’t anybody distract me with a solution, I’m too focused on being scared.”

Changing back the focus from the stress reaction (the alarm light) to the stressor (that caused it to glow) is the key to making an appropriate use of this vitally important warning system. It is also the key to responding vs. simply reacting. Learn this, and stress becomes a precious ally in navigating the treacherous straits of modern life.