The Body’s Response to Stressful Situations

Imagine hiking along a trail, coming over a ridge, and coming face to face with a large bear. Uh oh! Your life is on the line and whatever happens in the next few moments will determine if you live or die. Fortunately, your body has a built in response to help ensure you have a chance. It is called the stress response, also known as fight or flight. This is a response that has been with us for thousands of years and is responsible for the fact that, as a species, we still exist. Let’s look at exactly what happens when you encounter a bear, or any kind of stressful event.

First, your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate all go up. This is the body’s way of increasing the blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, because you’ll need that to run away from the bear. Your blood thickens just in case you should get wounded, it might prevent you from bleeding to death. Your immune system shuts down because it takes too much energy to run, and you need that energy to get away from the bear. Your immune system is useless in the immediate moments of survival. Your brain function changes, moving away from deep thought and concentration, and more to quick thinking and short attention. This helps you spot areas to hide or a tree to climb.

On a deeper and more serious level, there are chemical and hormone changes. One of which is a decrease in something called sex hormone binding globulin. This essentially takes sex hormones and gets them to the right places within your body. In a stressful situation and a reduction in this, there is a higher level of free sex hormones that end up in places that they shouldn’t, increasing the chances of certain types of cancer.

Once you got away from the bear, if you got away from the bear, the body would produce serotonin in an effort to reset this stress response. In a chronic stress situation, the body’s serotonin levels get depleted. This serotonin depletion leads to depression, fatigue, and poor sleep. While this response is amazingly intelligent and necessary for survival, it was meant for short-term bursts. In today’s hectic, high-stress world, we get stuck in this stress response chronically, which leads to sickness and disease.

Stress, Misdiagnosing Stress & Managing Stress

You can see how doctors often misdiagnose conditions, not realizing that the body is not sick, but adapting to the current environment. Imagine a guy in a high-stress job that he hates. In response to this environment, the body produces more cholesterol because his body needs the cholesterol to make stress hormones. His blood pressure might also be elevated in response to the stress. The doctors do an exam and find high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. They tell him he has hypertension and increased cholesterol, and that he is sick. Remember, he is not sick, his body is just responding to the environment he is in. In fact, he is very healthy because if his blood pressure was not elevated and his body was not producing the cholesterol, he would be at great risk and unable to sustain in his high-stress environment. Next, they prescribe two medicines, one for cholesterol and one for the high blood pressure. If he has these two things going on as a result of the environment that he is in, the only true solution is to change the environment. The environment is never even discussed, instead he is given drugs. These drugs do not correct the cause of the problem, and actually work against the body’s intelligent response to the environment.

I believe stress is the most underestimated cause of illness in America today. The body does the best it can, for as long as it can, but eventually runs out of steam. The end result is what appears to be sickness, but is merely the body doing its best to adapt to its environment. The human body is designed to heal, grow, and adapt. Stress crushes that. We often cannot rid our lives of stress, but we can manage our stress better.