Tricky business… to fight or to flight
September 26, 2016

From the dawn of our time it has always been the same. Once we encounter difficult life situations we always choose either to fight or to runaway. So what’s it all about and how is it connected with acute stress?

Whether it is persistent worry about losing your job, work pressure, family difficulties or encountering the lion in Africa without any means of protection, it is always the same. When we are exposed to certain life situations which we perceive as threatening, no matter how subjective our evaluations might be, we start to activate our survival mechanisms. These survival mechanisms are known as fight or flight response or as the “acute stress response”. This term was first described in 1920’s by Walter Cannon as a theory that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system. The response was later recognized as the first stage of a general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebrates and other organisms.

So, basically what happens is that these threatening events activate series of changes in our bodies. Our heart starts to beat faster, our breath become shorter, our blood vessels constrict and our muscles tighten. This is all caused by release of adrenaline and norepinephrine from the medulla of the adrenal glands. An abundance of catecholamines at neuroreceptor sites facilitates reliance on spontaneous or intuitive behaviors often related to combat or escape. This carefully orchestrated, instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure and family difficulties. Which in a long run may lead to other problems.

So, what is stress?

Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When stress is within your comfort zone, it can help you to stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself. Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV. But beyond your comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and acute stress can start causing major damage to your mind and body. As we already stated the body’s nervous system often does a poor job of distinguishing between daily stressors and life-threatening events. If you’re stressed over an argument with a friend, a traffic jam or bills you have to pay, your body can still react as if you’re facing a life-or-death situation.

When you repeatedly experience the mobilization or fight-or-flight stress response in your daily life, it can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can shut down your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, raise blood pressure, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave you vulnerable to many mental and physical health problems.

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