Stress is an entrenched reality of our lives. Stress response has played a significant role in the evolution of our nervous system and has been crucial for our survival. Our ancestors experienced acute stress when there were life-threatening perils like facing a wild animal. In such instances, the human body would mobilize itself defensively and activate the autonomic nervous system to fight, flight or freeze response.
When in fight mode, there are profound alterations due to weakening of sympathetic branch of autonomic nervous system. There are psychophysiological shifts such as increase in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, muscle tension, sweat activity along with neuro-endocrinal alterations. The adrenal-hypothalamus-pituitary axis gets activated and there are rapid secretions of stress hormone, cortisol, along with movement of blood from limbs to heart and lungs.
In freeze mode, which occurs in extremely traumatic situations, the parasympathetic nervous system dominates and body drops in pressure, temperature and mobility, stimulating a corpse. From an evolutionary perspective, the freeze mode was useful as predators might lose interest if the prey is already dead.
Stress is beneficial to a certain point as it helps us take effective action when facing challenging conditions. This is called “eustress”. But beyond a threshold, stress starts becoming “distress”, and it pathologically erodes and wears down our cardio-respiratory, immune, gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal systems.
Today, acute stress is replaced by chronic stress, where a biological threat is now a psychological one. Our bodies have not caught up with the evolutionary shifts in our lifestyle and so our bodies are overreacting to mundane pressures and irritants of everyday living.
In cities, being stressed has become so normal that we fail to realize we are stressed. This psychologically disposes us to depression, irritation, frustration, mood swings and angry outbursts, which underscore psycho-emotional disturbances. We are also prone to worsening any preexisting medical disorder and susceptible to creating the circumstances for diseases to take root in our body and mind, high lightening psychosomatic overdrive. Diabetes, hypertension, digestive disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, eczema and ulcers are the outcome of stressful conditions.
Since stress is an inevitable part of our lives, learning how to identify stress and how to de-stress becomes paramount for our psycho-physiological wellbeing. While we cannot prevent stress in our lives, we can definitely shift our emotional reactions to stress. It is essential to make lifestyle changes that allow us to slow down and relax. Meditation and Yogic relaxation help immensely as does physical postures and exercise. Try to spend more time with family and friends. Eat healthy and sleep well. Work with mental health professionals to see your stress patterns, how you perpetuate them, and eventually disassociate with them.