Stress is undoubtedly part of our daily lives, even if it varies in intensity, frequency or the way each of us manages it. We know that stress often tends to make our daily lives difficult, reducing our ability to concentrate and consequently our performance, and often negatively affecting our personal, social and professional functioning. On the other hand, there are times when stress motivates us, makes us more productive and helps us cope with the daily challenges of our lives.
In fact, stress is a completely normal and useful emotion, which works protectively for us. When faced with a potentially threatening or dangerous situation, stress warns us and keeps us awake in order to effectively cope with danger and protect ourselves from it.
Fight or Flight: when the body reacts to stress
Stress is what activates our internal self-defense system, also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response: a biologically determined and evolutionarily necessary reaction of our body. In other words, an internal alarmwhich is activated when we are confronted with something that may possibly harm us. In this state of alertness, our mind and body are mobilized almost in a flash, releasing all kinds of hormones that prepare us to fight or escape (flight) from danger.
The fight or flight reaction can occur in response to an impending real danger (such as when confronted with a dog barking or a car speeding towards you) or as a result of a psychological threat (such as when preparing for an important presentation at work).
You can probably think of a time in the past when you experienced a fight or flight reaction. In the face of something frightening and potentially dangerous, the heart begins to beat faster, breathing becomes faster and the whole body mobilizes and is ready for action. Common physical symptoms include tachycardia, sweating, rapid breathing (or hyperpnea), muscle tension, dizziness, shortness of breath, and more.
Real or imaginary danger?
This reaction of our body plays a crucial role in how we deal with stress and danger in our environment. However, the fight or flight system can be activated due to both real and imagined threats. By preparing the mind and body for action, we are better prepared to function effectively under pressure. The stress created by this situation can be really helpful, as it helps us to be alert and to cope effectively with whatever comes our way.
Good, healthy, productive stress, whatever we call it, we know that this form of stress can help us perform better in situations where we are under pressure to do well (e.g., at work or at university). On the other hand, in cases of real danger, the fight or flight reaction can play an essential role in our survival (e.g., reacting immediately to a car accident), increasing the chance of surviving the impending danger.
Although our body’s response to stress is automatic, this does not mean that it is always accurate. Sometimes we react in the above way, even when there is no real threat. Phobias are a good example of how the fight or flight system can be activated in the face of a subjectively perceived threat.
For example, a person who is afraid of heights may begin to experience this intense stress response when he has to go to the top floor of a building to attend a meeting. Similarly, a person who has difficulty in social interaction may show strong signs of stress if he needs to speak in front of a group of people. In both the first and the second case, his body can be put on a state of emergency, as his heart will start beating loudly and his breathing will become faster. If the symptoms of stress become more severe, they could lead to a panic attack.
By understanding our body’s natural response to stress, through the fight or flight mechanism described above, we can better cope with such situations. When we notice that we have tension and our body enters a state of emergency, we can find ways to calm down and relax our body, e.g. doing muscle relaxation exercises, diaphragmatic breathing, or gentle physical exercise – among others.
When does stress become a problem?
Although this reaction of the body was once an instinctive behavior designed to protect animals and humans from danger, there are times when it can be very arduous or problematic for some people. Some people seem to have a sensitivity to stress, making it easier for them to perceive the environment and the potential dangers it entails. Consequently, they are also constantly in a state of extreme alertness and intense stress in order to prevent harm and to protect both themselves and their loved ones.
Although effective in the short term (since it helps the person to cope effectively with the challenges of his daily life), this intense and persistent stress often overwhelms the person and can lead to psychological problems such as anxiety disorders, depression, burnout and so on. In these cases, it is important to consult a mental health professional in order to be able to effectively manage their stress.