In this article, you will learn how and why you get stressed. You’ll understand how situations trigger the stress response in you.
I’ll cover the primary threats to our physical health and wellbeing, and also the many psychological threats that can cause you to feel stressed.
These include threats to our self worth, relationship or financial security. Also, how stress can leave you with feelings of helplessness, being powerless or out of control.
The stress response works in one of five different ways. I’ll cover these in detail, and also cover the role of the Amygdala and the Hypothalamus in responding to threats.
I finish by explaining how to influence the stress response through your beliefs. This is fascinating stuff and explains how you can influence the automatic stress response over time.
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What is the Stress Response?
Whenever your mind perceives a threat, it sets off the stress response. This is a real physical response that you can feel in your body. This could be a physical threat to our survival. Or more commonly these days, it’s a psychological threat. And this threat could be an actual threat or something that you’re imagining.
The stress response has several names. It’s commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. That’s very simplistic, as we respond in other ways besides fighting or running away. It’s also known as the threat response or the alarm response.
What Happens in the Brain.
A part of your brain, known as the amygdala, is constantly processing incoming information. This is either external information coming in through your five senses, or things that you’re thinking and imagining in your mind. And if it thinks any of this information poses a danger or threat, then it will send an alarm signal to the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus will then release two hormones. The first is adrenaline. This will increase your heart rate, raise your blood pressure and give you more energy.
The other hormone is cortisol, which gives you more glucose, which results in even greater energy. However, cortisol also shuts down nonessential systems. These include your digestive system and your sexual reproductive system. So people under long-term stress often have problems with digestion or with sexual performance.
Now, the amygdala and hypothalamus are so efficient that they act before the conscious mind is fully aware of what is happening. And this is a wonderful survival mechanism.
Here are some examples of this wonderful survival mechanism in action. You’re walking down a pavement and you hear the screech of car brakes behind you. You immediately jump and look behind you before your conscious mind has fully realized what’s going on.
Or if a car was coming straight towards you, you would instinctively jump out of the way before your conscious mind knew what the threat was.
If you saw a lion, you would run away without even thinking about it. Or if your child fell into a river, you would instinctively jump in to save that child.
So the amygdala and hypothalamus will bypass the conscious mind when necessary, and this happens extremely quickly!
The automatic stress response can be an issue when it involves other people. Therefore, we often say that people trigger us. What they’re actually doing is triggering the stress response in you.
But it never feels like that at the time! Therefore, we say things like, “you make me angry”, “you make me sad”, “or you make me upset”.
In reality, something about what that person said or did triggered the automatic stress response in you.
Why You Forget Things!
When you feel stressed, blood moves away from the prefrontal cortex part of the brain which is just above your eyes, to the more emotional amygdala. Less blood in the prefrontal cortex means that you can’t think as clearly (or remember things) when you’re stressed. A real biological change has happened in your brain.
So if public speaking or giving a presentation activates the stress response in you, you might find it harder to remember what to say. This is the reason people freeze on stage.
Less blood in the prefrontal cortex will cause you to be more single-minded. This makes complete sense because if you were being chased by a lion, you wouldn’t have time to think about the different options. You would need to act right now!
Stress Response and Arguments
Remember that if you’re having an argument with another person, the other person is probably experiencing the stress response too, and is not thinking clearly either. So people often say things they don’t mean in the heat of an argument.
For example, you’re having an argument with your partner. He or she says “I don’t love you” They don’t really mean it! It’s just that the stress response has affected how they’re thinking in that moment.
When you’re in an argument with anyone, if they say something hurtful or upsetting, remember that they are stressed and not thinking clearly. When they calm down, they’ll think and talk more rationally.
Never take things that people say to you in the heat of an argument at face value because they rarely mean it at the time.
The 5 Different Stress Responses.
Any physical or psychological threat, whether it is real or imagined, will trigger one of five stress responses.
The first stress response is to fight. You attack the aggressor or threat head-on. If someone is affecting your physical safety, then you fight back.
If the threat is more psychological, for example, a threat to your self-worth, then fighting is becoming more dominant. It’s proving something, or getting one over on another person, because doing this will increase your self-worth.
It could be winning at all costs because your sense of self-worth is based on winning.
2. Flight (Running Away)
If someone was about to attack you, rather than fight back, you’d run away as fast as you can!
If the threat is more psychological, than you might withdraw to avoid being criticized or rejected. A lot of social anxiety is the flight response in action. You protect yourself by avoiding certain situations, or being acutely aware of the risks and treading carefully.
Freeze is standing still and hoping that the threat doesn’t see us.
For a physical threat such as seeing a lion, this is freezing and hoping that the lion doesn’t see you! For psychological threats, this is being indecisive. Agonising over what to do, or taking ages to make a decision are examples of freezing.
Procrastination is also a freezing behavior. If you fear doing something that might trigger a future threat or stress response in you, then you might choose to delay it or avoid it altogether.
Fawn is becoming subordinate. It includes agreeing to bosses or partners’ demands because you fear the consequences of not doing that.
It’s also avoiding conflict. When I was at school, I was a good kid and did the right things, but not for positive reasons! It was because I didn’t want any conflict with my teachers or my parents. I hated conflict then, and still do to some extent.
People displaying the fawn stress response might say things like “whatever you say, no problem”, rather than standing up for themselves or saying what they really want to say.
5. Feign or Faint
This is to play dead and hope the threat goes away. This is the rarest of the five stress responses, but it’s quite common with health issues. It’s avoiding going to see the doctor, when you have a niggling health issue. Instead, it’s hoping it will just go away.
About 20 years ago, I was a passenger in a car when it skidded off a very icy road. As soon as the car skidded, my subconscious mind blocked the whole thing. The next thing I knew was the driver shouting my name to check I was okay, and then helping me out of the car, which was upside down in a field! My conscious mind effectively played dead!
What Triggers the Stress Response.
As mentioned earlier, the stress response is triggered either by physical or psychological threats.
This is any threat to our physical survival. It includes being attacked, road accidents, natural disasters or a serious illness such as cancer.
These include thinking about or imagining any of the physical threats mentioned above. Thinking about these for a few minutes or imagining worst-case scenarios in your mind is going to create the stress response.
And then there are the more direct psychological threats, such as a threat to your sense of self-worth, self-esteem, or sense of security. This might include financial security or your feeling of security within an intimate relationship.
It can also be a sense of not fitting in with other people. Or any situation where you feel helpless, powerless or out of control.
This includes feeling overwhelmed at work when you have an extremely high workload and you don’t know how to control or reduce that.
Same Threat – Different Person – Different Response
The same physical or psychological threat will often cause a different response in different people. However, it will always be one of the 5 stress responses covered earlier. Here is an example.
The threat is insecurity in social situations, so a threat to a person’s self-worth in these situations.
One person might respond by fighting. This could be by dominating the conversation, telling lots of stories, and being really loud and extrovert. This is their way of deflecting their insecurity and increasing their self-worth.
In the same situation, another person will respond by running away. This would be by being shy or avoiding eye contact. And feeling overwhelmed by the loud people that are telling stories.
So both people are experiencing the same feelings inside, but they’re responding differently.
Someone that freezes might sit in the corner thinking, “well, I don’t know what to say”. They might overthink all the things they could say, but not say anything. So again, this is a form of procrastination.
Here’s another example. A parent or teacher says to a child or teenager, “you will never amount too much.” “you’re never going to make anything happen in your life.”
One person might fight and say, “well, this teacher is an idiot. I’m going to prove them wrong. I’m going to show them I can make something of my life”
Another person might run away by thinking “I suppose I’ll never amount to much”. And then a belief forms that says “I’m never going to amount to much”. And then life follows that belief.
The Stress Response in Action
Any negative emotion that you feel in your body is the stress response in action, even if it’s really subtle.
If you’re not sure if you’re stressed or if something’s triggered you, then notice how your body feels. Your body will always tell you if you’re under some kind of emotional stress or not.
Overwhelm is a stress response. Feeling that there is far too much to do, especially when this happens at work. Overwhelm triggers a deeper feeling, which is a lack of control. So the threat is not overwhelm, it’s the lack of control that comes from overwhelm. It’s the feeling that I can’t deal with that and I have no way out.
The feeling that comes from being criticized is also a stress response. The threat here is to your sense of self-worth, which links to a deeper feeling of not being good enough.
Also, fear of success. People may not take the right action to become successful because they’re afraid of success. Maybe they’re afraid of the extra responsibility, the extra money and how to handle that. They are perceiving a future threat, which prevents them from taking action right now.
Another example is losing weight and becoming slimmer. Becoming slimmer will mean being more attractive. This can cause unwanted attention. Perhaps you find it hard to say no or deal with unwanted attention.
Perhaps you had struggled with this in the past and that’s why you put on weight in the first place. If that’s the case, you’ll find it harder to lose weight because unconsciously, a part of you is afraid of what might happen in that situation. So you would need to deal with that fear to help you successfully lose weight and keep it off.
So the threat response can be very subtle, especially when it’s about something that might happen in the future.
The stress response can also kick in when we lack certain things, and this is also very subtle. The stress response activates the desire to get what we don’t yet have. Good examples are a lack of money, love, security or self-worth. When we lack those things, the stress response will try to do things to help you get those. This is a good thing, although it is coming from the future perceived threat of not having these things.
Another example is control. I touched on this earlier with overwhelm. If you feel that your life is out of control, then you might try to control something that you can control.
This might be food. Overeating or limiting food intake is something that you can control.
It could be attempting to control other people. If you notice other people that are very controlling, then remember that they are doing this because they feel a lack of control in their life, and are trying to get that control back by controlling other people.
Changing the Stress Response by Changing Your Beliefs
If the stress response is instantaneous, unconscious, and automatic, then how do we control or change it?
The good news is that you can. We do this by changing our beliefs about situations that we see as a threat. This then prevents the stress response from automatically firing.
Here are some examples. If you believe dogs are dangerous and will attack you, then as soon as you see a dog, the stress response will kick in before you even think about it.
If you can change that belief to dogs are friendly, then the next time you see a dog and it’s wagging its tail, then you’ll have a different emotional response.
If you believe people are out to get me or I can’t trust anyone, then you’ll view people with suspicion. This will activate the stress response and you’ll get triggered.
If you can change that belief to “I can trust the right people” and “I know which people to trust”, then that will change how you respond to the vast majority of people. And then you only get the threat response occasionally for people that you need to be wary of.
Taking my earlier example of being slimmer, if you believe you can’t deal with the extra attention you’ll get by being slimmer, then being slimmer will trigger the threat response. And will lead to self sabotage. You’ll get to a certain weight and then you’ll do things to put the weight back on.
Change that belief to “I can handle the extra attention I might get” then you won’t self sabotage, because getting unwanted attention will no longer trigger the stress response.
If you believe that your self-worth is based on what other people think of you, then when someone else criticizes you, this will trigger the stress response. If instead you can believe that I’m fundamentally a good person, regardless of what other people think, then you’re less likely to be triggered when someone criticizes you.
Putting this into Action
Now you have a better understanding of how the stress response works, how it’s very automatic, and how you can be more aware of it in your life. You also know more about the effect of beliefs and how that can change your stress response over time.
Just by knowing this information, you’ll be much more aware of how you might be triggered in different situations. And this in itself is very useful.
However, I encourage you to notice how your body responds in different situations. Notice how your body feels when the stress response has been triggered.
Also notice the threats that you tend to fight or run away from, or the threats that cause you to procrastinate.
Then notice the unconscious beliefs that are now becoming conscious that may be behind each different threat response.
And if you’re interested in changing beliefs, then this related article below will help you do that.
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