Our stress and relaxation responses: What you need to know

by | Aug 1, 2023

stress and relaxation responses
The emotional, mental, and physical impact of our symptoms and stress can be savage. And the only way to find relief is to understand how our stress and relaxation responses work. Let’s do it…

‘…we become even more vulnerable to many types of emotional and physical illnesses when we believe we have little or no control over stress.’  Dr. Gregg D. Jacobs

Some years ago I was looking for information regarding drug-free insomnia treatment and bumped into a great book.

Say Good Night to Insomnia was written by Gregg D. Jacobs, PhD, who developed the first drug-free program that proved more effective than meds.

Where we’re going

The book includes valuable information regarding how our stress and relaxation responses work. And that’s where we need to go.

To maximize learning, we’ll handle it in two parts. Let’s take care of our stress response in this piece and we’ll take a look at our relaxation response in part two.

Off with us…

Our stress response

Our stress response (SR), aka fight/flight response, is a collection of involuntary physiological changes that occur when we’re faced with threatening or stressful circumstances.

Simply, it pushes our bodies into a state of arousal and preparation.

By the way, it’ll be helpful to read up on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). Don’t let the med-speak spook you, it’s interesting.

Stress response in action

Okay, here’s what happens when our SR is triggered…

  • 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 enhance 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 distressed because you didn’t know why it was happening. Could be your SR was crankin’ beneath conscious awareness.

I mean, let’s not forget how sensitive those of us with a mood or anxiety disorder can be to our internal and external environments.

stress-illness connection

“All this stuff, all this stimulation. No wonder I constantly pump adrenaline.”

Yikes! 12 Signs You’re Overstimulated” addresses exactly that. Even gets into something known as a “highly sensitive person” (HSP). Give it a read sometime.

Now, granted, we aren’t facing the physical threats experienced by our ancestors. However, we’re still up to our eyeballs in personal stressors, which are often frequent and chronic.

Just think about your relationships, work, family, schooling, and finances.

But there’s more

On top of that, we’re responsible for juggling social and environmental stressors. Jacobs emphasizes the decline of the 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 communication.

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

There’s a problem

So now we’re faced with a problem…

We can’t avoid stress and we can’t toss aside our SR’s physical arousal by fighting or fleeing. That’s because fighting and fleeing aren’t socially acceptable responses to stressful situations.

As Jacobs wisely observes, if your boss fires you, slugging her or running away aren’t good choices..

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.

The stress-illness connection

Those who have 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 pointing out that 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, irritability, 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 activity and unhealthy cycling.

I mean, where does it all end?

Drivers of the stress-illness connection

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 Dr. 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.

No arguments here.

On to the relaxation response

That’ll do it for the stress response. Do you see how important it is to get it squared away before we leap into the relaxation response?

Makes sense that relief is tough to come by if we aren’t fully briefed on our adversary.

Okay, let’s do part two.

Here’s the scoop on Say Good Night to Insomnia.

And check out the goods on Dr. Jacobs’ CBT-I (CBT for insomnia) website.

Oh, one final detail. Alisa at NESTMAVEN asked if I’d link to one of her articles – on insomnia. Here’s Insomnia – Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment.

Feel like reading more Chipur mood and anxiety info and inspiration articles? Check out the titles.

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