The Stress Response: Fight/Flight/Freeze
by Holly E. Mullin
There are many reasons in this day and age why we are called to detox our body systems:
- Physical toxins: herbicides, pesticides, chemical additives & preservatives in our food
- Pollution/carbon monoxide in the air we breathe
- Too many stimulants in our diet: sugar, caffeine, alcohol, drugs & prescribed medication
- Household products & toiletries full of carcinogens
- Etc, etc, etc.
This list can go on and on into geological, environmental, and technological pollutants also.
Some of these pollutants we can control to a certain extent, what and how much we ingest, others, we cannot. However, the most important, the most damaging, the aspect we can have the greatest level of discipline around, and what we are concerned with here, is STRESS.
The levels of stress and tension we live with, today, are second to nothing we have ever experienced before throughout history. We are living longer and we have less physical demands on our bodies in terms of labour and hard work. We can cure many diseases and disorders which in the past would have been fatal. We are experiencing technological advances far and above anything we could have ever imagined. We even understand stress better now more than ever. So why aren't we coping with the stressors of everyday life? How can we live with this level of stress and still live life to our optimum potential?
The truth is most people are living in a state of fight or flight, most of the time. This stress response is a normal reaction to a threat or an immediate extreme stress or life threatening situation. It is an aspect of the Central Nervous System (CNS), known as the Sympathetic Nervous System and a branch of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which means we have no conscious control over when it is activated, it just happens as a natural response in these conditions.
In a state of fight or flight a number of things happen physiologically as the body prepares for action:
-Increases strength of skeletal muscles - creates muscular tension
-Decreases digestion and digestive secretions
-Reduces intestinal movement - poor elimination
-Increases heart rate - heightens blood pressure
-Increases sugar and fat levels
-Relaxes the bladder
-Increases mental activity
-Inhibits erection/vaginal lubrication
-Dilation of bronchi in the lungs - shallowness of breathing
-Constricts most blood vessels but dilates those in heart/leg/arm muscles
-Activity of adrenal, pituitary and thyroid glands
In a stressful situation the hypothalamus activates the pituitary gland which in turn causes the adrenals to react and release cortisol a hormone which raises the blood pressure and releases fats and sugars from the tissues to mobilise muscle activity. Prolonged arousal over a period of time can cause reduced immune system function and hypertension.
The pituitary also activates the thyroid to produce thyroxin a hormone which increases the metabolic rate, raises blood sugar levels, increases heart rate, blood pressure, intestinal spasms and shallow respiration. This is a major contributory factor to high levels of anxiety if caused over prolonged periods.
Now this is all very well and good in an stressful situation whereby the body feels threatened and needs to prime itself for action to either run away (adrenaline) or fight back (nor-adrenaline).
However, for most of us and for many decades, reacting to stressful situations with a fight or flight response has never been appropriate. If your parent, school teacher, or boss is taking disciplinary action against you, it usually isn't possible to get physical or run away. Sometimes people are held under physical arrest or threatened with the possibility of being hurt.
In these cases, more often than not, what happens is we FREEZE. We swallow back feelings and emotions, our muscles are primed ready for action yet
we have to remain still, so we go stiff, creating muscular tension, we hold our breath in fear and all the time whilst our heart is racing and blood, sugars and fats are raging round our body preparing for action.
Because of this repressed state, holding back unable to let go into the natural state our bodies were designed for, we are unable to efficiently discharge the full effects of what we have experienced. In the wild, and under "natural" circumstances, a body would shake quite violently in order to release the residue of adrenaline etc., so that it is eliminated through the normal processes. But usually, this too is inappropriate at school, home or in the work place, so the shake is also held back and tension sets in.
The process of this occurrence happens many times in a person's life, often on a daily basis, usually starting when we are young and powerless. We grow up then being "triggered" by any situation which reminds of how it felt to be vulnerable and through time we become hardened to the difficulties of life. We decide we aren't going to allow ourselves to be hurt anymore; we put up barriers and forget how to be open, soft and vulnerable.
Because we live with this level of stress response, due to difficult interactions with people or things, and we are often unable to discharge the effects of the response in our bodies, we lose our natural innate ability to listen to our bodies needs and judge effectively.
The body also produces the same effects even when we do activities which should activate the relaxation aspect of the CNS, the parasympathetic nervous system, and yet, because we cannot hear our natural rhythms and cycles, we do them in a stressful way. A few examples of this could be eating on the run (instead of "resting & digesting") or relaxing in the evening whilst watching something stressful on the television such as the news or suspense filled thrillers.
There are many actions and activities we engage in today which create an over production of stress response hormones in the body. Many of those are potentially relaxed activities yet done in a way which creates stress in the system.
The parasympathetic branch of the ANS is responsible for the regulation of internal organs and glands when the body is at rest. Relaxed bodily functions which should happen normally and are a process of letting go include:
- Lacrimation (production of tears)
- Sexual arousal
So we move into adulthood, unable to let go. Many of us cannot cry, digestion is shut down, elimination is difficult and sex drive is either lost or dysfunctional.
People therefore turn to alcohol, to relax in the evening, and coffee to wake up in the morning. Food provides instant gratification as, due to the high levels of stress we are living with, there is little or no joy without these oral fixations, and letting go is almost impossible without some form of stimulation. We suffer from increased mental activity living in the past and looking to the future for pleasure, instead of experiencing the now. And these high stress levels over long periods cause hypertension, anxiety and depression.
Yet, all is not lost. There are many, many ways in which we can improve on our stress levels and over active minds and bodies. It takes discipline in the early days, but soon you will find that every little helps and your body will be craving more of what is good for you.
- Eating fresh foods
- Organic wherever possible
- Cutting down on toxic overload
- Regular exercise: yoga, walk or dance
- Adding a daily relaxation and meditation.