In all living organisms – humans included – there’s only one system-wide process for ‘alert’ versus ‘relaxed’.
That means that any experience, thought or emotion can activate our emergency response, just as if a tiger were lunging towards us.
When the stress response (aka ‘fight, flight or freeze’) is activated, our bodies are pumped full of adrenalin and cortisol, creating an internal state like a shaken fizzy drink.
In an activated state, our ‘rational’ brains go offline and our memory hierarchy rearranges so that we can access memories of danger in order to know how to act. In combination, these processes cloud our thinking and judgement and flood us with fear-based thoughts and emotions.
Perfect if you want to act fast to escape a T-rex. Not ideal if responding to work stress or a slight from your partner!
Nevertheless, the stress response is adaptive. Not only does it help us survive, but it can also be wonderfully energising – that exhilarating game of tennis is system-wide activation at its finest.
The problem is not the stress response itself, as we have feedback mechanisms that calm the system and restore equilibrium.
The problem is our culture has evolved faster than our biology, and so we’re exposed to chronic stressors we’re simply not built for, which overwhelm the mechanisms we have for healing and recovery.
Fortunately, we have the equipment; we just have to learn how to use it.
To live more physically and mentally healthy lives, we need to:
- understand our elegant stress responses
- learn how to identify and reduce stressors
- learn how to harness and develop our stress-neutralising resources
- learn how to surf the inevitable waves