Understanding Stress

Table of Contents

Fight-Flight-Freeze Response

Stress is often perceived as a negative force, but it’s essential to recognize that it serves a crucial evolutionary purpose: helping us survive in the face of danger. When faced with a threat, whether real or perceived, our bodies instinctively kick into action, initiating what is commonly known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response.

This response is deeply ingrained in our biology and has been honed over millions of years of evolution. It’s what enabled our ancestors to outrun predators, defend against attackers, or stay still to avoid detection in the wild. Today, while we may not face the same life-or-death situations as our predecessors, our bodies still react in much the same way to perceived threats.

Understanding how the fight-flight-freeze response works can provide valuable insights into our physiological reactions to stress and how we can effectively manage them.

Fight Response

Our body prepares for a physical confrontation with the perceived threat. Our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and adrenaline surges through our body. We may feel angry, aggressive, or confrontational. This response is designed to help us defend ourselves and is often associated with a “fighting spirit.”

Flight Response

Our body prepares for escape or avoidance of the perceived threat. Our heart rate increases, we start to sweat, and our breathing becomes rapid. We may feel anxious, scared, or overwhelmed. This response is designed to help us quickly and safely remove ourselves from danger.

Freeze Response

Our body prepares to remain still and avoid detection by the perceived threat. Our heart rate and breathing slow down, and our muscles tense up. We may feel paralyzed or unable to move. This response is designed to help us avoid detection by predators, and is often associated with “playing dead.”

While the fight-flight-freeze response can be helpful in certain dangerous situations, it can also be not suited to some of the triggers in modern times. Here are some examples:

  • In public speaking, the physical symptoms of the response (e.g. increased heart rate and sweating) can be misinterpreted as a sign of incompetence or unpreparedness, leading to more anxiety and poorer performance.
  • When we encounter conflict with others, the fight-flight-freeze response can sometimes cause us to act impulsively or say things we don’t mean. Alternatively, the freeze response may cause us to withdraw or shut down, preventing us from effectively resolving the conflict.
  • In people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), the fight-flight-freeze response can be constantly activated, even in the absence of an actual threat. This can lead to chronic feelings of anxiety and physiological symptoms like muscle tension, fatigue, and insomnia.

Types of Stress

  • Acute Stress: This type of stress is short-term and is typically caused by specific events or demands. Examples include public speaking, taking exams, or facing deadlines. Acute stress can be manageable and even beneficial in small doses, as it can enhance focus and performance.
  • Chronic Stress: Chronic stress occurs when stressors persist over an extended period, such as ongoing financial difficulties, relationship problems, or chronic health conditions. Chronic stress can take a toll on physical and mental health, leading to a range of symptoms including fatigue, irritability, and weakened immune function.
  • Episodic Stress: Some individuals experience frequent episodes of acute stress, leading to a pattern of episodic stress. These individuals often feel overwhelmed by the demands of daily life and may exhibit symptoms of chronic stress due to the cumulative effect of repeated stress episodes.

Signs and Symptoms

Stress can manifest in various ways, affecting both the body and mind. Understanding the physiological, psychological, and behavioral aspects of stress is essential for effectively managing it. Common signs and symptoms of stress include:

Physical

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach problems
  • Rapid heartbeat

Emotional

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Difficulty concentrating

Behavioural

  • Change in appetite
  • Change in sleep pattern
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs.

Impact of Stress on Day-to-Day Activities

Stress can have a significant impact on various aspects of your day-to-day life. In this section we talk about some of the common ways it might affect you so that you can start recognising it and use the skills in the managing stress section of this module to start making sustainable changes:

Interpersonal Relationships

High levels of stress can strain relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. You might become irritable, withdrawn, or less emotionally available, leading to conflicts and misunderstandings.

Work Performance

Stress can hinder your ability to perform well at work or meet job-related expectations. It may result in decreased productivity, errors, and difficulties in managing tasks efficiently.

Physical Health

Chronic stress can take a toll on your physical health, increasing the risk of various health problems such as heart disease, digestive issues, and weakened immune function. It may also exacerbate pre-existing health conditions

Mental Well-being

Stress is closely linked to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Persistent stress can contribute to feelings of overwhelm, hopelessness, and burnout, affecting your overall psychological well-being

Sleep Quality

Stress can disrupt your sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep. Poor sleep quality can further exacerbate stress and impair your ability to function optimally during the day.

Lifestyle Choices

When under stress, individuals may engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating, smoking, or excessive alcohol consumption. These behaviors can negatively impact physical health and exacerbate stress in the long run.

Discover practical tips and strategies to help manage your Stress in the next part of the module

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