Maybe you’ve heard of the term “fight or flight”, which refers to your stress response—your body’s reaction to any situation perceived as a threat. I personally like to call it the “holy shit” response.
Imagine yourself hiking on a beautiful mountain trail, breathing in the crisp air, and taking in the incredible views—when suddenly a big-ass grizzly bear appears on the path ahead.
Holy shit is right.
Below is a quick breakdown of what happens in your body during this potentially life-threatening situation—I’ll also explain why it’s important for you to know, so stick with me.
Here’s what happens during your stress response:
- Your brain perceives danger (big-ass bear) and sends a distress signal to your sympathetic nervous system.
- Your sympathetic nervous system is the part of your nervous system responsible for the stress response—fight or flight. It jumps into action, signalling your adrenal glands.
- Your adrenal glands release the hormone epinephrine (more commonly known as adrenaline), which prepares your body to run from the bear, or fight the bear:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure to pump more blood to your muscles
- Rapid breathing for increased oxygen intake
- Dilated pupils and heightened awareness of your surroundings
- The release of stored sugar (glucose) into your bloodstream for a burst of fuel
- Slowed digestive function—because digesting your food clearly isn’t important right now
- The hormone cortisol kicks in if the brain still perceives danger after the initial rush of adrenaline subsides. It keeps your sympathetic nervous system charged for fighting or fleeing until the danger has passed. So if the bear finally decides to saunter away without giving you trouble, your cortisol level drops.
- Your parasympathetic nervous system takes over and helps your body and mind to return to normal. You can remember the difference between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system like this:
- Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your stress response (fight or flight). It puts you in “survival mode” during a perceived threat.
- Your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for your relaxation response (rest and digest). It slows your heart rate, regulates your breathing, initiates your digestion, and controls all other day-to-day bodily functions that happen without your conscious awareness. The parasympathetic nervous system puts you in “thrive mode”, ensuring that everything runs efficiently and smoothly.
So why is this important information for you to know?
The reality is that you’re not very likely to find yourself in a “holy shit it’s a grizzly bear” situation any time soon.
Here are some stressful situations you might be more familiar with:
“I’m going to be late for my meeting—my boss is going to lose it.”
“That jerk just cut me off and ran a red light! What the heck is wrong with people??”
“I’m completely unprepared for this presentation tomorrow. I have NO idea how I’m going to pull it off, and I’m freaking out.”
“My super judgmental mother-in-law is coming over in an hour, and my house is a complete disaster.”
“I haven’t slept for more than 5 hours a night this week—I’m completely exhausted.”
“It’s like the world is in complete chaos—another mass-shooting, uncontrolled climate change, global political crisis, a struggling economy…I feel so helpless.”
Did reading the above list of scenarios fill you with tension? Me too.
Your body is resilient, and it’s designed to handle fairly high levels of stress—but only for short bursts of time.
The problem is that in our modern, fast-paced society we’re constantly bombarded with stressful stimuli. So if you’re frequently reacting with panic to every-day stressors, it can cause your stress response to stay in the “on position”—I call this getting stuck in survival mode.
Chronic stress can lead to anxiety, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, blood sugar imbalance and sugar cravings, weight gain, poor sleep quality, lowered immune function, poor concentration, and burn out.
Concerns I often hear:
“I just can’t relax—it’s like I’m constantly in over-drive.”
“I feel pulled in all directions. I’m going from one thing to the next and I can’t keep up.”
“I’m completely overwhelmed. I can’t shut off the stress, and it’s effecting my health.”
“Even though I’m exhausted, I lie in bed with my mind racing every night.”
If you feel like you’re living in survival mode every day, you’re not alone. I’ve been there, and I’ve worked with many women who also struggle with feeling anxious, stressed, and overwhelmed.
A helpful first step on your path to reduced stress is to simply be aware of what’s happening in your body during the stress response, which is why I wanted to share the above information with you.
Next, you can start to introduce simple techniques to help you move out of the stress response, and into the relaxation response—from survival mode to thrive mode.
The good news is that there are many well-researched methods for helping you to do just that! I share some of my favourite stress-reducing techniques in part 2 here, so you can get started today.
Kisses and bear hugs,
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