How many times over the past month have you said that you feel stressed? Once a month? Once a week? Once a day? Three times a day? Is even thinking about this question stressing you out? If you answered yes to any of those questions, this article is probably for you.
We talk about stress all the time! So often, in fact, that the word stress has almost lost its meaning. So, what exactly is this thing we call stress?
Stress is an undifferentiated name for the impact emotions have on our bodies (Greenberg, 2015). In other words, it’s a bunch of feelings that are stuck in our bodies and lead us to feel exhausted or irritable or high strung, etc. There are two main different types of stress: Acute Stress and Chronic Stress.
Acute stress is a normal part of everyday life. It happens when a stressor is short term and has a clear beginning, middle, and end. An example of an acute stress may be giving a presentation at work or at school. Your heart starts pounding and you notice some more sweat than normal under your armpits and you maybe even feel like jumping up and down. The key here is that you give your presentation, it ends, you feel pretty okay about it, and you rest. The stress is over (CSHS, 2017).
We experience chronic stress when we’re exposed to a stressor for a long period of time. Examples of chronic stress may be working overtime for many days in a row, or working high stress jobs in general. Other examples may be long term emotional or physical abuse, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In all these cases, our bodies respond to the ongoing stress by continuously secreting stress hormones that eventually negatively impact our mental and physical health (CSHS, 2017).
Sounds a little bleak right? You might even be a little mad at your body for reacting in such a way when you just need to work a little harder this year to get that raise, so if your body could just quiet down and stop with the tantrums, you could get this done…. or maybe that’s just me. When I learned about our body’s survival mechanism (the Fight/Flight/Freeze response), I became a little less mad at my body. It turns out that without that stress response system, we wouldn’t survive. Maybe if you feel the same way I did, you’ll be able to forgive your body too.
Fight Flight or Freeze: Your Body’s Survival Instinct
Your body’s first priority is always to keep you safe. Its ability to ensure your survival rests on its “Fight, Flight or Freeze” system within your central nervous system (CNS). In response to danger, your body mobilizes to either fight, escape (flight), or freeze. This process occurs faster than we can consciously think, it’s an automatic threat protection system built into each of us (Nagosky, 2015; Van Der Kolk, 2015).
Fight can also be thought of as our rapid anger/fear response. When we are in danger or when someone we care about appears to be in danger and it seems like we could overpower that source of danger in order to stop it, we go into fight mode. This is what happens in those moments when you might feel like you’re in a “blind rage.” You might react by punching or yelling because your central nervous system (CNS) has determined you are in danger and you need to fight your way out (Nagosky, 2015; Van Der Kolk, 2015).
An everyday example of the fight response for many people is driving in heavy traffic. Someone cuts you off and you feel your heart pounding, your face gets hot, and you may start yelling in very colourful language from within your car (maybe you even gesture with your middle finger out of your window, the universal North American sign for “I will fight you!”).
This can be thought of as the fear/anxiety response. Your CNS determines that the source of danger is too frightening to face head on, so the best chance of survival is to run. Your heart pounds, you get a burst of energy and your digestion slows down as the blood from your stomach gets transferred to your legs and arms, so you can move quickly (Nagosky, 2015; Van Der Kolk, 2015).
In terms of our driving example, you might notice this feeling when a car has veered out of its lane and is coming toward you. There’s no time to think about your next course of action so your body mobilizes and you either slam on your breaks or you veer onto the shoulder to get out of the other car’s way.
You go into a state of “freeze” when your CNS determines that the source of danger is too terrifying and too powerful for us to be able to successfully run from or fight. The emotional and/or physical pain is also too intense for you to take in the moment. Instead, you freeze, which allows you to not feel the intensity of the pain. In Freeze mode, our bodies become stiff, our minds go blank, and our brain becomes so overwhelmed, it stops recording memories. For some, this may feel like an out of body experience, for others it may feel like complete numbness (Nagosky, 2015; Van Der Kolk, 2015).
Going back to our driving example, freeze is most likely to occur we you actually get into a car accident. This is why many people feel disoriented afterward a car accident and may not remember what happened.
How this Relates to Stress
“Stress” is another word for the fight/flight/freeze response. Chronic Stress a long-term feeling of fear/anxiety/anger that elevates your stress hormones to constantly mobilize you for fight or flight (Nagosky, 2015)
If every day you’re driving in intense traffic, you may feel constant fear/anxiety about potentially being late for work, compounded with anger at the person who’s driving too slowly in front of you. Then you get to work, and you might have a big project due and you feel fear/anxiety about whether you can get it done on time, you might also feel angry because it feels like the expectations placed on you are too high, oh and also your co-worker is a jerk. Then you drive home, same traffic issues (anger, fear). And then maybe you get home late from work, you have kids to feed and a spouse who is mad at you for working so late (you can fill in the blanks here with the anger/fears that come up with all of that). Then, you try to sleep but your brain is running around trying to solve the day’s problems, and you wake up not feeling very rested, and… repeat. This dizzying cycle of stress that is so common in our culture is too much for our bodies to take! No wonder we all feel so exhausted, irritable, and stuck.
Luckily, there are scientifically proven ways for us to become unstuck and to move through stress. It involves allowing our bodies to complete the stress response cycle. In my next blog post, I’ll explain what the stress response cycle is, and how we can use the steps of the cycle in our everyday lives to keep our minds and bodies healthy.
Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS). (2017). Acute vs. chronic stress. Understand Your Stress. Retrieved from https://humanstress.ca/stress/understand-your-stress/acute-vs-chronic-stress/
Greenberg, L. S. (2015) Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings (2nd ed.) American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.
Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books: New York, NY