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The Basic Stress Response: Fight or Flight

Stress is a normal and necessary experience. The stress response is designed to keep us safe from threats and can also motivate us to pursue important goals. It prepares us to fight or flee from a threat. Unfortunately, this response is not always functional when facing modern-day issues like getting an ominous email from your boss, and it is also possible to trigger when there is no real threat in your immediate environment.

Understanding the Physiology of the Stress Response

The stress response starts with your amygdala, which functions like a threat alarm system in your brain. Your amygdala is constantly scanning for threats. It looks both internally at thoughts and physical sensations in your body and externally at your environment for cues that something might pose a danger to you. When the amygdala perceives a threat it sends an alarm signal to the hypothalamus, which is like your brain's control centre. The hypothalamus then activates the sympathetic nervous system and sends a chain of hormones to the pituitary and then the adrenal glands, which release cortisol and adrenaline.

This release of hormones and activation of the sympathetic nervous system then rapidly affects the body by:

  • Increasing your heart rate

  • Elevating blood pressure

  • Increasing muscle tension

  • Speeding up your breathing

  • Dilating pupils

  • Making you sweat

  • Reducing your perception of pain

  • Increasing energy

These bodily reactions make you ready to fight or flee! They can feel very uncomfortable when you're stuck in your office chair unable to physically release all that energy and tension!

Understanding the Importance of Cognitive Appraisal

While stress can be helpful and can keep us safe, many of us experience more stress than we need to because our amygdala has learned to code neutral stimuli as threating, or mildly threatening stimuli as highly threatening.

Sometimes this is learned through experience. For example, if every time you bumped your knee on a table your dogs would start barking and your parents would yell at you, then your amygdala is likely to learn that bumping your knee on a table is a threat. Sometimes how something comes to be coded as a threat is less clear, but we know that the way we think about or cognitively appraise a situation also impacts this coding. For example, while one person might look at a dog and think "how cute! I love dogs!" and feel quite calm, another might think "that dog is going to kill me," triggering a stress response. How we think about and evaluate the world around us matters!

Even the way we think about stress itself can impact how we then respond to and are impacted by stressful experiences! Here is a great TedTalk that explains this further:

Managing Stress

Thankfully, there are ways to manage the stress response and to reduce unnecessary stress. I will tackle this topic in a separate post!



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