Your Innate Stress Response

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Hello again Singapore! Dr Zak here.

Last week we learnt that our thoughts are powerful and what you feel can have a significant impact to your health.

Today let’s rewind a bit and unpack what happens inside of us when we experience stress.

The human species has evolved a very interesting survival strategy, that has served us well for thousands of years.

Imagine that you are hiking through the forest and you stumble upon a tiger.

What happens inside your body?

  • Your heart will beat faster, increasing your heart rate.
  • Your heart will beat with more intensity, increasing your blood pressure.
  • You will start to breath faster, and maybe you’ll have more shallow breaths.
  • Your mind may race, and you may get a little confused.
  • You will start to sweat.
  • You might feel jittery or shaky.
  • You will probably be very scared.

Unexpectedly seeing the tiger has triggered your innate stress response or your fight-or-flightresponse.

Your fight-or-flight response is a series of biochemical changes that prepare you to deal with a threat or a danger. Primitive people needed quick bursts of energy to fight or flee predators.

Our genetic make-up is not too different from our hunter/gatherer ancestors.

Your Innate Stress Response

Let’s go a little deeper. So again, as you are hiking in the jungle, you are shocked to suddenly come across a tiger.

Related Blog: How is Stress Affecting Your Spine?

You see the tiger and your nervous system perceives the tiger as life threatening. The visual stimulus of the tiger causes your cerebral cortex (the thinking part of your brain) to send an alarm to your hypothalamus (your main switch for your innate stress response).

Your hypothalamus, which is an almond-sized relay center in your midbrain, activates your sympathetic nervous system. I know this is fairly technical, but please stay with me.

The main point is that you perceive danger, and a certain aspect of your master wiring system (your sympathetic nervous system) gets activated.

Your sympathetic nervous system triggers changes in your body known as the fight-or-flight stress response.

Your sympathetic nervous system directly stimulates various parts of your body, as well as sends instructions to your adrenal glands to secrete two hormones:

  1. Adrenaline (also known as Epinephrine)
  2. Cortisol

Adrenaline and cortisol are your stress hormones. Hormones are chemicals secreted by the glands of your body, and are designed to trigger a specific body response.

In this case, your stress hormones are quickly triggered to help you rapidly act so you can stay alive. This stress response is a survival mechanism.

Your sympathetic nervous system, aided by your stress hormones, causes a chain reaction inside of you to help you do the things that would be necessary if you had to rapidly run away from danger or fightoff a threat. Your brain, through your nervous system, almost instantly facilitates this fight-or-flight response. It happens at the speed of a thought.

When this happens, certain aspects of your body function increase, and certain things decrease.

Stress hormones are quickly triggered to help you rapidly act so you can stay alive.

This stress response is a survival mechanism.



Remember you need to run away or fight so:

  • Your heart beats faster to get more blood to your muscles so you can take action. This is an increase in your heart rate.
  • Your heart beats more forcefully to send more blood to your muscles for action. This is an increase in blood pressure.
  • Your blood sugar increases so your muscles have fuel to burn to respond to the threat.
  • Your breathing becomes more rapid and shallow to supply oxygen to your muscles more effectively.
  • Your metabolism increases so you have more energy available to act.
  • Sweating increases to keep your muscles cool in the moment of action.
  • Anxiety and fear is present to keep you alert and hyper-focused.
  • Your digestion is reduced because you do not need to digest food in the emergency situation.
  • Your concentration, immune system function, and hormone system are reduced, because there are other priorities present —like survival.
  • Your pupils dilate so you can see better, and your hearing becomes more acute —you become more sensitive to your environment.
  • Your salivation is inhibited so you may experience a dry mouth.

Your innate stress response is a mechanism designed to help you survive in the short-term. It’s a rapid survival strategy like a sprint or jumping over a dangerous object, perfectly coordinated by your brain through your master wiring system known as you nervous system.

I really want to emphasize this: your fight-or-flight response is not a bad thing; in isolation, it is not a problem. In fact, it is essential for survival and is a genius expression of your innate life force. A negative thought or problem, real or imagined, can trigger your fight-or-flight response. When this occurs repeatedly over time, major damage can result in your health.

Stress Triggers are Everywhere  

Obviously, modern stresses are very different than being chased by a tiger through the forest. But life, especially life in Singapore, is very stressful, just in different ways. It is rare that our lives are actuallythreatened.

A negative thought or problem, real or imagined, can trigger your fight-or-flight response. When this occurs repeatedly over time, major damage can result in your health.

We were not designed to live in the sensory overload that many of us do live in. We are bombarded with stressful stimuli, competing priorities, and things that require immediate attention. Life happens much faster and everything seems critical.

Maybe you feel compelled to check your email on your smart phone every other minute. Every email you receive may seem vitally important, and you have to reply almost immediately. Maybe you receive multiple text messages throughout your day. Many people feel like they are “on-call,” enslaved to their boss or clients regardless of the time of day.

We have to fight traffic to get home, or maybe repeatedly get bumped and pushed on a crowded MRT. Work pressures are abundant. Relationship challenges, at home or at work, affect your mood. Living costs are on the rise. You may be expected to work longer and longer hours for the same pay.

Related Blog: How is Stress Affecting Your Spine?

Yes, these types of stimuli are not the same level of intensity as an attacking tiger (for example), but the same physiological pathways and mechanism are at play. Whether we are being told off by a demanding colleague or being chased through the forest by a wild animal, our nervous systems trigger a very similar process: your innate stress response.

Modern life is like being constantly chased by a charging tiger.

This causes profound damage to your health.

Your brain and nervous system cannot tell the difference; you might as well be fighting off a wild animal, over and over and over, throughout your normal daily life. Your physiology is the same.

Your brain continually perceives threats in your environment and triggers your stress physiology or your fight-or-flight response. As a result, we get desensitized to the stressful inputs into our lives. However, the desensitization does not translate to our physiological responses that will be constantly happening.

Modern life is like being constantly chased by a charging tiger.

This causes profound damage to your health.

Wrapping Up

We covered a lot of ground here. Let me briefly summarize the key points.

Key Points:

  • Mental stress is fundamentally a thought.
  • Thoughts have a profound and real effect on your life. They produce real change to your physiology (your body function).
  • The problem is that modern life continually triggers your stress response. It is like we are constantly being chased by a wild animal.

Read more on how stress can affects your spine here.

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