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Understanding the Stress Response

By: Lauren Salani, LCSW, BCB

A stressful situation—whether due to work pressures, a relationship conflict, traffic snarls, persistent worry, a major life transition, turning on the news, a pandemic—can usher in a cascade of stress hormones to the body that leads to the fight, flight, or freeze response.

This autonomic nervous system response is ancient and meant to keep humans and other mammals physically safe from the predators of long ago. When it is activated, blood flows to muscles to prepare to run, to get away. Muscles tense as a natural armor, the breath quickens, beads of sweat appear so teeth will slip off the skin, pupils dilate to increase information intake, gastro-intestinal system shuts down as digestion is not needed when trying to escape, blood pools in areas of the brain that aids safety, the freeze response is meant to aid in playing dead so the predator may move on.

Today, we are living in a world where there may be considerable threat to our well-being and physical safety. Our autonomic nervous system is the default mechanism that alerts us to danger and then gives us the energy that helps us navigate through a situation to safety. Problems arise when there are multiple situations or ones not easily resolved and the fight, flight, freeze reaction is repeatedly activated over a long period of time.

Long ago, humans could retreat to a quiet, dark cave to restore themselves after an encounter with a predator. Without the peace and quiet of a cave, the autonomic nervous system can continue to secrete stress hormones unless the system is some-how down-regulated. Overtime, repeated activation of the stress response can contribute to heart-disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, interrupted sleep and exercise schedules, gastrointestinal disorders, and a build-up of fatty tissue.

Many people are unable to find a way to put the brakes on this autonomic response. The Relaxation Response, developed by Dr. Herbert Benson, teaches how people can counteract the stress response with techniques that signal safety to the mind-body system. Techniques known to elicit a relaxation response include abdominal breathing, focusing on a soothing word (such as peace or calm), using imagery of tranquil scenes, progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic techniques, and practicing gratitude.

These techniques may be enhanced with biofeedback which can provide real-time physiological information through sensors placed on stressed areas of the body. Knowing how your mind and body reacts as you relax provides a powerful “way of knowing” of how to, most efficiently, relax and calm your own system. Keeping your nervous system in rest-mode keeps it in good working order for times when it may be quite useful.

People can also utilize exercise to restore balance and a calmer state. A brisk walk or activity with fluid movements after a stressful encounter helps to deepen the breath and loosen tight muscles. Creating a mental focus on the natural world or being out in nature can also help calm nerves and bring on a greater sense of safety.

Social support from family, friends, acquaintances, teachers, co-workers, confidants, and people in your community can all serve to provide emotional support to calm and restore mind and body in times of crisis.

If you are having trouble managing your stress responses and would like professional assistance to promote a calmer nervous system to better prepare for what life has to offer, please contact: Stress Relief Services, Atlantic Executive Center,107 Monmouth Road, Suite 104,West Long Branch, NJ 07764.Phone: 732.542.2638 Board Certified in Biofeedback Therapy, Senior Fellow of the Biofeedback International Alliance (BCIA), Member of Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB), Trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)


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