The stress response, sometimes called out ‘fight, flight, or freeze response’, is controlled by a division of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system. Much like its name suggests, this part of the nervous system functions automatically, producing responses in the body that are outside of our direct, conscious control. The stress response is activated in response to our body and brain perceiving there to be a threat to our survival somewhere in the immediate environment. Imagine a tiger prowling around in the same room as you – your nervous system would initiate your panic response, increasing your heart-rate, dilating your pupils, directing energy away from non-essential processes (like digestion) and releasing adrenaline to better prepare you to fight, flee or freeze in response to this very present danger. In the case of our tiger, this is a very important process, and it is designed to give us the best chance of surviving.
However, in the modern world, most of the tigers we see are kept safely within zoos. As our technology advanced, we began to replace the physical dangers of our hunter-gatherer days with the non-physicals stressors of day-to-day life. It is much more common for us to feel stress in response to a deadline at work or an argument with a friend or family member than it is for us to be endangered by a tiger. Unfortunately, our stress response isn’t always aware of the difference between the physical danger of an attacking tiger, and the non-physical, although no less stressful, stress of a deadline or an argument. This is why we experience the same symptoms, perhaps to a greater or lesser extent, in response to both physical danger and psychological stress.
The good news is that by understanding that our stress response is our body’s attempt to protect us from danger, we can modify that response and the often uncomfortable symptoms that accompany it. Taking some time to exercise, do something relaxing, or even slowing down just long enough to take some deep breaths can help to teach our brains that although we are experiencing worry about an upcoming deadline, we are not in immediate physical danger.