Say you’re walking in nature and you see a bear (or if you want to look at the origins of this behavior, maybe a saber-tooth tiger). The animal notices you, and he looks mad. This is the moment your stress response has been waiting for! Your body will get into protection mode and experience the following:
Your heart rate will increase, to produce more blood to feed your major muscle groups.
Your body is trying to take in as much oxygen as possible, both for its nutrients and to prepare your body for physical exertion. Either you’ll be running away, or fighting for your life.
- Temperature Changes In The Body
Your blood is being sent to the major muscle groups–the ones you need to run and fight. So, the parts of you receiving blood will feel warm, while other parts might feel cold and clammy.
Your body is getting ready to move. You’ve been receiving extra energy to get you prepared for sudden movement, and if you aren’t moving, you’ll need to control it somehow.
- Hyperfocus Or Lack Of Focus
Your body is focusing on the danger and possible avenues of escape. That can be either places to run to, or weak spots on your opponent. Everything else fades
All these responses are designed to keep you alive. (1) Your natural instinct is not to get attached by that bear…or that saber-toothed tiger.
Why Do I Feel Stress?
Maybe you don’t spend a lot of time around lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). But there are also more modern things that stress is beneficial for. Stress can help you with physical dangers–like standing in the way of a speeding car, slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident, or when walking in dangerous areas at night. But, to your body, emotional stress and physical stress are the same. So, if stress has ever motivated you to study hard for an exam or prepare to meet your partner’s parents, you can thank the flight-or-fight response. (2)
So When Is Stress A Problem?
There are two types of stress–or, rather, there are two lengths of stress.
All the situations we’ve described are examples of acute stress. It’s when there’s one situation that you need to get through, and your stress response can help you overcome it. It’s temporary and short-term, and you recover from it relatively quickly.
Chronic stress is when stress becomes a problem. It results when we have a situation that cannot be resolved quickly. Maybe it’s a job where there is always more work. Maybe it’s a relationship plagued by fighting. Maybe it is a class where you can’t understand the material, no matter how hard you try. These are stressors that last weeks or months, or have no definitive end in sight. When your environment is causing you this sort of long-term stress, your body is flooded with these fight-or-flight hormones all the time – and that is a big problem! (3)
What Health Problems Can Stress Cause?
Stress shows up in many different forms. In some cases, the symptom can mimic other ailments. Because of this, we may not even realize that our bodies are trying to tell us that we are stressed.
- Loss of sexual function
- Exhaustion and difficulty sleeping
- Muscle pain or stiffness
- Stomach Aches
- Forgetfulness or lack of concentration
- Skin problems
- Worsening of other health conditions
- Heart disease