Your brain is constantly scanning its environment for signs of danger, ready to activate bodily processes and reflexes to keep you safe from anything it perceives as a threat. When danger is detected, all animals, from mice to humans, respond physically with an almost instantaneous sequence of hormonal and physiological changes preparing them to run or battle for their lives.
It was the Harvard University physiologist, Walter Canon, who first used the term fight-or-flight to describe this instinctual, biological reaction of all animals to fear back in the 1920s. Now, this phenomenon is also commonly referred to as the stress or fear response.
This life-saving response was a good thing which helped our ancestors survive, but it was only meant to activate infrequently in life or death situations. However, this trigger still exists in your brain today, and kicks in too frequently for common occurrences, like getting stuck in traffic, a work deadline, or an unexpected bill. Because of the accompanying bodily reactions, a frequent or chronic stress response has negative health consequences for your brain and body over time. However, the good news is that there are many ways you can turn down your stress response.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) manages your body’s stress response. When your brain initiates it, your body quickly increases your heart rate and breathing, dilates the pupils, redirects blood flow to your muscles, shuts down your brain’s frontal lobe, and releases stress hormones, cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. The parasympathetic nervous system is the “brake” that helps calm your body once the threat has faded.
Unlike other animals, humans are unique because danger doesn’t have to be imminent or actually happening to warrant a SNS response. Often, our thoughts are enough to trigger a stress response when there isn’t any real threat present. Our big sophisticated brains can go into high alert when just remembering, anticipating, or imagining something upsetting or scary. You can put yourself into a full-blown panic when there’s no actual danger.
Thankfully, the converse is also true. You can work yourself out of a stressful state solely with your mind and thoughts.
Benefits of the Stress Response
In actuality, stress is not all bad. For example, the nervous tension you feel when going on a first date, speaking in front of a crowd, or starting a new job is called eustress. The stress created by these situations can actually be helpful, making sure you perform better in circumstances where you are under pressure to do well.
On a biological level, stress is a normal physical response that happens whenever you ask your body to adapt or respond in some way. It’s an essential part of living. Technically, you are stressing your body when you ask it to get up out of a chair, learn a new skill, or go for a run. When stress is not severe or chronic and neurons are given time to recover, connections and pathways in your brain actually become stronger, and stress is not a bad thing. The problem arises when your brain sounds the alarm too often, and stress becomes a constant state for your body, and your sympathetic nervous system is always “on.”