Our Stress and Relaxation Responses | Understanding Them and Working Toward Calm

Panic Attack Symptoms

The emotional, mental, and physical impact of chronic stress is brutal. Toss in panic attack symptoms, major depressive disorder, and more; and we’re dealing with a cycling nightmare. We all have a stress and relaxation response. What say we understand them and work toward calm?

‘As research consistently documents, we become even more vulnerable to many types of emotional and physical illnesses when we believe we have little or no control over stress.’

Was looking for resource material addressing drug-free insomnia treatment and found a great book. Say Good Night to Insomnia was written by Gregg D. Jacobs, PhD, who developed the first drug-free program for insomnia that proved more effective than pills. Check-out his CBT-I (cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia) info on his website.

In the book, Dr. Jacobs includes valuable information on our stress and relaxation responses. I’m going to share it with you, but to do it well I’m going to have to make it a two-part series. So let’s handle the stress response in this piece and I’ll come back with the relaxation response content in the second installment. Good?

Our Stress Response

Our stress response (SR), aka fight/flight response, is a constellation of involuntary physiological changes that occur when we’re faced with threatening or stressful circumstances. Simply, it pushes our bodies into a sense of arousal and preparation. You may find it helpful to read this piece on the HPA axis.

Here’s what happens when our SR gets busy…

  • Pumping of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine) to activate our nervous system and put us on edge
  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration to ramp-up physical strength and energy
  • Heightened visual and hearing acuity, and faster brain waves, to bolster alertness and mental reactions
  • Decreased blood flow to the stomach and extremities, and increased blood flow to the brain, muscles, heart, and lungs to support fight/flight
  • Increased muscle tension. Interesting – this is an evolutionary mechanism that allowed our cave-dwelling ancestors to assess danger and remain immobile so they weren’t seen by predators. It also prepared them for fight/flight and protected them from injury by creating “body armor”
  • Increased sweating to cool the body
  • Increased blood sugar levels to reduce fatigue and increase energy

Maybe you’ve experienced one or more of these and were frightened because you didn’t know why it was happening. Perhaps your SR was crankin’ beneath awareness.

Granted, we’re not faced with the physical threats experienced by our ancestors. However, we’re still up to our eyeballs in personal stressors; and they’re often chronic, frequent, and psychological. Just think about your relationships, work, family, and finances.

On top of that we’re responsible for juggling social and environmental stressors. Jacobs includes the decline of family, noise pollution and overcrowding, a constant sense of time pressure, and exposure to rapidly increasing amounts of information and global events via computers and mass communications.

It isn’t a news flash that our brains don’t distinguish between physical, personal, and social/environmental stressors.

So now we’re faced with a problem…

We can’t avoid stress, and we can’t toss aside the SRs physical arousal by fighting/fleeing. And that’s because fighting/fleeing aren’t socially acceptable responses to stressful situations. Jacobs wisely observes, if your boss fires you, slugging her or running away aren’t such hot ideas.

Suffice it to say, many of us are left with chronic, inappropriate, and excessive SR activation. And it can happen so frequently during any given day that it becomes automatic – unconscious.

The Stress-Illness Connection

Those who endure an automatic – unconscious – SR may find themselves in the midst of what Jacobs refers to as the stress-illness connection. The idea that an over-the-top SR can generate physical health problems is well-accepted. Jacobs puts things in perspective by stating 50-80% of all complaints brought to a physician’s office are stress-related.

Consider these…

  • Muscle problems: Chronic tension, headache, neck and back pain
  • Cardiovascular issues: Increased blood pressure and cholesterol, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Gastrointestinal problems: Irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal pain, colitis, constipation, diarrhea
  • Emotional/mental issues: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, anger
  • Compulsive behavior problems: Substance use, gambling, consumption of pornography
  • Infertility
  • PMS

Not only are these manifestations of a hair-on-fire SR, they become stressors in and of themselves, leading to additional SR and unhealthy cycling. I mean, where does it all end?

According to Jacobs, studies implicate the following stressors as notable drivers of the stress-illness connection…

  • Marital conflict, separation, divorce
  • Loneliness
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Academic examinations
  • Death of a loved one
  • Caring for an incapacitated loved one.

To wrap things up on the stress-illness connection, this from Jacobs…

… life without stress would be a life without challenge, adaptation, and growth. Stress becomes a problem when it is excessive and chronic. As research consistently documents, we become even more vulnerable to many types of emotional and physical illnesses when we believe we have little or no control over stress.

On to the Relaxation Response

That’ll do it for the stress response. Do you see how important it is to get that squared away before we leap into the relaxation response. I’m always more willing to approach new material when I know why it may be important.

Whatever you’re enduring – chronic stress, panic attack symptoms, major depressive disorder, degrees of mania, and more – understanding your stress and relaxation responses is huge.

I’ll have the relaxation response piece posted by February 10. Come on back.

Oh, one final detail. I received an email from Alisa at NESTMAVEN asking if I’d link to one of her articles – on insomnia. She thought it would be a good fit. Since I encourage collaboration and an open exchange of information, why not? Here’s The Complete Guide to Insomnia: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment. (And, no, I wasn’t paid.)

635 (to be exact) Chipur articles await. Check-out the titles.

  • Patricia Miller February 4, 2015, 5:23 pm

    Yet again, another dynamic piece. I got to this section, “our brains don’t distinguish between physical, personal, and social/environmental stressors” and immediately thought, “I’ll bet our brains don’t differentiate between emotional stressors either.” So if I get my knickers in a twist over something, say an old memory or an old situation or a flashback from some PTSD moment, that is going to be just as valid a stressor as something current in this time and place to my brain. If my brain gets all jangled and fired up, then my SR is fully on fire. I am eager for next week’s article already. Thanks for this lovely summary.

    • Chipur February 4, 2015, 6:45 pm

      Well, you’re welcome, Patricia. And thank YOU for stopping-by and contributing to the proceedings. The SR is a slick character – often crankin’ away in the background, generating all kinds of icky symptoms. And when we don’t realize it’s at work, we can get all gummed-up thinking whatever else catastrophic – within – is at play. Yikes!

      Yeah, stay tuned for the relaxation response piece, soon to come. That’s when we’ll have some immediately applicable strategies and techniques to calm the SR…


    • BarbCat February 13, 2015, 7:44 pm

      I’d like to recommend a book that speaks so eloquently to this, that emotional trauma as well as happiness not only affects our experience, but how – causes actual changes in our gene expression. It’s very inspiring reading and offers hope and techniques on how to deal with it. It’s helped me a lot.

  • npeden February 5, 2015, 9:03 pm

    right on, patricia, i cannot genetically make gaba from glutamate, as it is suppossed to happen had a fight witth my ex and being mthfr, i am already getting sick.

    and i have a gene that makes me sick if i miss sleep so the cbt option scares me. i would have to be in great shape to do that.

    • Chipur February 6, 2015, 9:13 am

      Thanks, Nancy! Chipur readers – Nancy’s reference to MTHFR pertains to a gene mutation. If you’d like to learn more, check this out http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/gene/MTHFR

    • BarbCat February 12, 2015, 8:14 pm

      Nancy, B6 and zinc help make gaba.

      • npeden February 12, 2015, 8:35 pm

        depending on the genes, some cannot have b6. i am just about to be tested for zinc, copper and b6. some need p5p. my nutritionist thinks picamilon, gaba enhancer, doesnt’ work for me cuz i don’t need it. tell that to the sleep devils.

      • BarbCat February 13, 2015, 7:36 pm

        Can’t tell you how many nights I wrestle with the sleep devils. I take the P5P form of B6 – don’t do real well on vanilla B6. You might also suggest whole blood histamine if you haven’t had it and if available, SAMe/SAH ratios which indicate the actual methylation/acetylation levels your MTHFR might be affecting. Just a suggestion, but I assumed I was a high methylator and started folate. Turns out my histamine was way high which indicates low methylation, whereby I can’t take folate (was taking hexamethylfolate). On the basis of a high methylator protocol (primarily folate), I took a real downturn within a week. Again, just a suggestion. Do you take glutamate for GABA? Didn’t work for me. Resort to gabapentin but that isn’t much of an answer either.

        Was tested REAL high for mercury a few years back, did DMPS chelation and ended up in the hospital with Steven’s Johnson syndrome. I really feel that’s holding up my health. Tried cilantro and the natural chelators but nada. I think I did so poorly on the DMPS because my elimination wasn’t so hot.

      • npeden February 13, 2015, 8:30 pm

        Barb, you seem to know a lot. Just now I can’t reply.I am in a deep emotional melt down. So much so my trauma therapist is seeing me Sunday. Talk to you later.

      • Chipur February 13, 2015, 10:09 pm

        Hang in there, Nancy. Will be thinking about you…

      • BarbCat February 14, 2015, 2:37 pm

        Thanks, but I’m totally ignorant of the genetic puzzle that you shine at. Lot’s of stuff I’ll have to learn. Take care o’ yourself.

      • npeden February 16, 2015, 12:57 pm

        wow, steven johnson’s is really seriouis. i worried with every antideppresant or psysch drug they gave. i am still in bed from an accidental over dose of a tricylic, doxe pie, which am not suppsed to have . slept till 5 and forgot the day and a special therapy session. mthfr and mutations really sucks.

        one of my favorute blogs is beyond meds i think thar is the name.

        btw dmps is very rough on your ststem. i hope to take dsma when i chelate. do you amalgams

      • BarbCat February 16, 2015, 3:35 pm

        Most of my amalgams are out but when I was a kid, my father (who had the same friggin disorder I do), used to buy mercury thermometers by the bulk and we’d sit at the kitchen table coating everything we could get our hands on. Watches, rings, quarters – and then we’d WEAR them! My hair test a few years go showed off the charts mercury levels and when I get really sick, I get a metallic taste in my mouth. I have an appointment April 21 with the Mensah Medical clinic to do the Walsh protocol. Can’t wait!!!!

        I hear you about antidepressants. The one you mentioned leaves you real spaced out and unreal. They’re potent antihistamines and some of us mutants can’t take it. I take an AD and I get whacked out panic attacks. My horrible little friends I shall not want.

        So sorry you’re going through such a rough time. Me too. On the tail end of a whopper. You just gotta hold on, listen to your little voice and somehow, it always eventually gets better. You say ”Next time I will remember that it does get better and I’ll have more faith. Maybe I’ll end up blown apart but I’ll be wiser and have more compassion for myself, poor little kid, me.” You’re in my prayers, Nancy.

      • Chipur February 16, 2015, 3:54 pm

        Sweet encouragement, BarbCat. I’ve been thinking a lot about Nancy lately and share your well wishes for her…

      • Chipur February 16, 2015, 4:18 pm

        BC – may I use the advice offered in the last paragraph of your comment in an article I’m posting tomorrow night?

      • BarbCat February 17, 2015, 2:08 pm

        Absolutely, Bill. I’m honored.

      • Chipur February 17, 2015, 6:47 pm


  • Chipur February 10, 2015, 8:53 pm Reply