There are times in which the stress reaction and the level of anxiety caused by a stressor are so high that the body’s reactions become extreme and add to the burden. Stress becomes stressful in itself and a problem of its own. Although the stress reaction itself is normal and necessary for survival, learning and for personal growth, the body’s reaction to the increased alert level causes a predictable and rather universal set of physical changes. These include:
- Increased central nervous system activity—a state of full awareness
- Increased mental activity and brainwave activity—full mental alert
- Increased secretion of adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and cortisol into the bloodstream—a state of endocrine mobilization
- Increased heart rate, cardiac output, and blood pressure—the way in which the body prepares to meet the physical demands of the stressor
- Increased breathing rate, breathing airways dilation—brings more oxygen into the lungs
- Increased metabolism, oxygen consumption, oxygen to the brain—oxygen is the principal sustainer of life for brain cells and for the whole body
- Blood is diverted away from the digestive tract and directed into the muscles and limbs—the processing of food become secondary to averting or confronting the danger
- Increased muscle contraction, which leads to increased strength—for either fight or flight, muscle readiness is automatically brought to the highest levels
- Increased blood coagulation (blood clotting ability)—helps the body minimize the impact of possible injuries
- Increased circulation of free fatty acids, a source of cellular energy—contributes to the readiness of the body to greater energy expenditure
- Increased output of blood cholesterol—makes the blood richer in nutrients to be carried to muscles and other organs
- Increased blood sugar released by the liver, to nourish the muscles—another important source of energy for best performance and strength
- Release of endorphins from the pituitary gland—an activating hormone that boosts alertness throughout the body
- Pupils of the eyes dilate—increases field and acuity of vision
- Hair stands on its end—a remnant from the time when hair covered the most vulnerable body parts
- Blood thins—this speeds up blood circulation for faster travel from center to periphery and back
- Sweat glands increase secretion—a well lubricated body presents a slippery surface in a fight and cools it down below dangerous heat levels
- Increased secretion from apocrine glands resulting in foul body odor—designed to repulse enemies
- Capillaries under the surface of the skin constrict with a consequent increases in blood pressure—blood pumping to all parts of the body is enhanced
- Immune system is suppressed–the immune system may have energy made available for it via reduction of other activities, may change in energetically conservative ways when the protection it confers needs to be balanced with the energetic demands of other activities such as fight or flight, or may be suppressed when other activities are more important than immunity for total well-being
- Reproductive and sexual systems stop working normally—in times of high stress, sex and reproduction take a back seat to survival and protection
- Decreased perception of pain—the analgesia system, a pain suppressing mechanism that effectively shuts off sensory transmission to the brain, so that we are permitted to go about the business of getting out of the gravest danger without the crippling sensations of pain.
No command is needed to activate these reactions that are programmed in the genetic code. Moreover, they cannot be prevented from occurring, except to a limited extent. At best, one can learn to control what is visible to others and, in some individuals, the heart rate can be somewhat controlled.
This cascade of physical reactions 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 instantaneously aroused into action: we step out of the bus’s path without really planning to do so, automatically. In this way, we have a chance to avoid and/or survive many physical threats to our well being. This ability enabled a physically weak human race to survive and thrive among larger and stronger animals, earthquakes, fires, and interpersonal conflict during our long history on this planet. Can we imagine surviving very long without the mobilization caused by the 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 of great value because most threats nowadays come from circumstances of social living, such as relationships, jobs, economics, politics, environment, and technology.
Unfortunately, the stress reaction can be so overwhelmingly strong that we become stressed by stress itself, incapable of moving beyond its mesmerizing message of danger. Changing back the focus from the stress reaction to the stressor 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 the alert system most useful in navigating the treacherous straits of modern life.