The Physiology of the Stress Response
by Sheila Southon, Counsellor and Naturotherapist
From the dawn of time the body we’re walking around in today has been formed with particular skills and assumptions that are alive in us now.
Those skills and attitudes were shaped though shared experiences – like the dangers of finding food, and of potentially BEING food. Very real dangers of survival made us wily, tough and above all hypervigilant. They also contributed to our tendencies toward community, creativity and communication.
It was around countless cooking fires like these that our attitudes and understandings of dangers were formed. Here we created and passed down stories, advice, and strategies. Here our myths were not only born but encoded deep into our flesh and bones. Here we made collective decisions about what life is about, and passed those decisions down to our children.
Successive generations benefited from hard-won lessons so that collectively we became stronger than tigers and bears, found and grew food, formed collective protection and governance for collective benefit. All the while we maintained our hypervigilance because those who let down their guard were not around to pass anything on to their children.
So our current bodies we could say were physically passed down through our DNA-RNA and psycho-emotionally passed down through our collective consciousness. My body and yours has encoded the benefits of countless Grandmothers and Grandfathers.
Physical survival required some amazing adaptations in our bodies. At the instant we think we’re threatened, every system, every organ, every cell in our body reacts instantaneously and synchronistically with no intellectual interference on our part. Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) sends messages in the form of chemicals and neural impulses throughout our body to get ready to fight, run or freeze to survive.
But yea, there’s a catch.
The whole complex incredible Fight Flight Freeze (3F) response was designed for short term survival.
Let’s rate the 3F response on a scale of 0 – 10 where both ends of the scale would be near death.
The blue line represents homeostasis. That’s where our body-mind WANTS to be and is constantly trying to return to. It’s the state where our body-mind can extract nourishment, clear wastes, grow, repair, fight off disease… you get the picture.
Then imagine a typical day in a primitive life (orange line). S/he gets up in the morning pretty relaxed, goes out to gather food and meets a predator! S/he survives, returning to the clan with meat for the fire. There S/he gets to tell the story thereby returning to homeostasis, and everyone goes to sleep with less fear and maybe new strategies.
Now look at the grey line. That’s where far too many of us live. We wake up half stressed and go throughout our day seeing threats everywhere. Some of us don’t even get to sleep well so our body-minds get very little time in homeostasis.
In this state of CHRONIC stress our body’s survival mechanism gets overwhelmed and, in a sense, turns against us. By definition the 3F response suppresses digestion and immunity, keeps flooding our body-minds with hormones and signals that reinforce our fears. It can be a vicious cycle at any time and seems especially likely during this pandemic.
This is where many of us turn to coping mechanisms that might actually undermine our body-mind’s ability to do what it does naturally. It’s fine – even helpful – to have a glass of wine with dinner, but a whole bottle has a much different effect. Yes relax with a good movie, but binge watching or playing 8 hours a day without moving your body-mind will not help.
Yes there is a way out. Many actually – and most of them don’t need you to take anything but time. Keep in mind social distancing and dress for the weather of course, then go for a walk or bike ride. Just being outside under the sky is something our body-minds have millennia of experience with and respond to well.
Take a few conscious breaths – learn a few new techniques to clear congestion – take time to stretch your muscles. Take time to stretch your skills by learning to do something new that you’ve always been curious about. Reach out online to an old friend you’ve been thinking about. Mend fences, rebuild bridges, write letters or journals, paint pictures, make collages, and of course meditate. That’s the gold standard of stress management AND opens so many more internal doors you’ll be better at coping every day.
There’s actually an overwhelming number of online courses and opportunities right now. If you choose our community to learn with, we have online yoga, tai chi, four meditation groups and individual Counselling. We are here for you. Sometimes it takes a big event in our lives – what we sometimes call a “pattern interrupt” to change questionable mind-body habits we’ve slid into in response to chronic stress. Maybe – just maybe – this pandemic IS that pattern interrupt.
Could it be that for you?
Counsellor & Naturotherapist,