Stress: Your body’s survival system

People across the globe are having to face and deal with this invisible predator called stress and sadly, in most cases, they remain subdued and suffer the consequences thereof.

STRESS is the new pandemic! Stress levels are rising every day. People across the globe are having to face and deal with this invisible predator called stress and sadly, in most cases, they remain subdued and suffer the consequences thereof.

What are some of these consequences of stress and most importantly, how can they be averted? Let us take a quick look at this very critical subject matter and see how best we can find possible solutions.

The biology of stress

Before diving into the consequences, it definitely would be important to understand the anatomy of stress. With this knowledge, it then becomes easy to come up with effective interventions for different people at different levels and circumstances.

Stress is the body’s natural way of dealing with danger. The human body is made in such a way that whenever it senses danger through hearing or seeing or feeling or touching or smelling, it reacts automatically to safeguard itself against the danger.

When a person encounters a stressor or senses danger, a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is literally the body’ security guard raises an alarm, which stimulates a pathway in the body and brain, called the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, to produce stress hormones namely adrenalin, cortisol and catecholamines.

The purpose of these stress hormones is to prepare the body for emergency action known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction or simply the ‘stress response’.

The stress response causes your heart to beat faster, your muscles to tighten, your blood pressure to rise, your breath to go faster and your reflect senses to become sharper.

All this happens automatically to improve your ability to respond to a potentially hazardous or challenging situation, for example jumping off the road when a lorry loses control and races towards you, when applying emergency brakes as a child suddenly appears in the middle of the road, or when running outside your house when a cobra suddenly raises its head a metre away from the couch you are resting on.

Stress, therefore, is the body’s inbuilt system of protecting you from danger. Without stress, your body will not be able to engage into ‘flight or fight’ gear to escape from danger and certainly by now, you could have long died.

How and when then, does stress become such a hazardous phenomenon?

When does stress become bad?

When danger (as in the examples given above) is over, the body quickly returns to normal, a state called the ‘homeostatic baseline’ or just ‘homeostasis’ and this happens with no negative effects on the body.

In other words, the ‘fight or flight’ response works very well with short lived, real danger scares.

However, when our bodies have elevated stress levels over an extended period of time, the autonomic nervous system begins to accept this heightened stress level as normal.

It, therefore, continues to produce high levels of stress hormones, well after the stressful event has passed, as it thinks that you need more stress hormones to overcome the danger before you.

This is when stress begins to be hazardous because the body can only handle cortisol in normal small doses and on short term basis.

Furthermore, the body’s nervous system cannot tell the difference between real life danger and danger that is just imagined in the mind, which I like to call “perceived danger” because it is not real.

Your body will get into the stress response when you are worried about what could potentially go wrong or when you brood over what has already gone wrong.

If you worry over the economy or soured relations for weeks, months or years, that is just how long your body stays in the stress response also known as the survival mode.

The consequences of stress

As you continue to worry or become anxious about life challenges, your body continues to release cortisol, which the body is not utilising because the danger is not physical.

Over time, your body begins to writhe from the excess supply of a hormone it does not need. Unutilised stress hormones in the body can disrupt and damage nearly every system in your body as shown below:

The Immune System. When your body is in survival mode, it diverts its attention and priorities to fighting or escaping from danger. Under real physical danger situations, a lot of energy is required by your legs and arms to ‘fight or flight’, but since your nervous system cannot tell the difference between physical danger and mere worrying about life, your body will still deprive your critical systems like your immune system of energy, reserving it for fighting or running away. As a result, your immunity is compromised hence making you more susceptible to viral illnesses like flu and common colds as well as other opportunistic infections. Furthermore, stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.

Respiratory and cardiovascular systems. In survival mode, you breathe much faster in a bid to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body for escaping or fighting danger. At the same time, your heart also pumps blood faster, your blood pressure rises and your blood vessels constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles so that you have more power to take off. The result of a prolonged stress response is that your heart works too hard for too long and so it begins to wear out, resulting in heart conditions.

Digestive system. When you are in the survival mode, your digestion is also affected. Because digestion requires a lot of your brain’s attention, this is disrupted as the brain’s main focus and priority is your survival. The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and an increased heart-rate can also upset your digestive system, giving rise to heartburn or acid reflux as stomach acids increase. The survival mode can also affect the way food moves through your body, hence causing diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, or stomach-aches.

Muscular system. One of the ways in which your body protects you when in danger is that your muscles tense up to enable swift and fast movement. They therefore release and relax when danger passes. However if you stay in survival mode for a prolonged period of time, your muscles remain tense and constricted. This may cause headaches, back-ache, shoulder pain, and general body aches.

Sexuality and reproductive system. Survival mode exhausts both the body and the mind and it is no secret that this may drain your energy and affect your desire for intimacy with your partner. Prolonged stress can cause a man’s testosterone levels to drop and so possibly interfering with sperm production hence causing erectile dysfunction or impotence. The survival mode can affect a woman’s menstrual cycles leading to irregular, heavier, or more painful periods. Chronic stress can also magnify the physical symptoms of menopause.

How to respond to stress

The goal of stress management is not to get rid of it completely, it is not possible. As mentioned earlier, stress is actually a good thing because it helps you to escape from danger.

It only goes bad when it is a result of prolonged perceived danger.

So stress management refers to dealing with perceived danger, the one that has no immediate physical harm but is only carried in the mind. The goal is to respond to it appropriately and timely.

In order to manage your stress, you have to first of all identify the things that cause you stress also known as your triggers. Figure out which of these things can be avoided.

Then, find ways to cope with those negative stressors that cannot be avoided.

Avoidable stressors — at times doing certain things or engaging in certain activities can trigger your stress response. It is important to identify whenever you start feeling stressed out or anxious and then list that as your ‘avoidable stressors’. This could be; stop watching the news, stop following every story on social media on how terrible the situation is, stop watching soccer if your team is losing all the time, stop watching horror movies, stop provoking a person whose reaction always pushes you to the limit, stop living in the past.

Unavoidable stressors — at other times we are faced with stressors that cannot be avoided such as;  work-related challenges, family problems, economic woes, political unrest, illnesses or bereavement. The idea here is to train your mind not to focus on your stressors but to try and focus on something else that is going right in your life, count your blessings.  Whatever you focus on the most is what impacts you the most.

Ways to help manage

Make time for self-care — a healthy diet, exercise, hydration, adequate sleep, deep breathes, meditation, have fun, spend time in nature and play with your pet;

Stay socially connected so you can get and give support; and

Fight to maintain a positive outlook to life, choose positive thoughts over those that drag you down.

  • Mhaka is a self-development coach and wellness consultant, who focuses on mental health awareness and mind fitness training. She is the executive director of BeMindFit, an author and a speaker. These weekly New Horizon articles, published in the Zimbabwe Independent, are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, managing consultant of Zawale Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — [email protected] or mobile: +263 772 382 852.

Related Topics