Our ancient ancestors relied heavily on this mechanism, because they faced constant danger and had to react to threatening stimuli immediately. In order to survive, they either fought or fled. A certain part of our nervous system (the autonomous nervous system) prepares us for an instant physical reaction by releasing stress hormones into the blood, making the heart rate and respiration faster, and releasing energy essential for action. After the danger is gone, the body returns to its normal state. There are only slight changes in body constitution between a modern-day man and a caveman. However, reaction to stress or physical danger has remained the same, because we still have the same nervous and endocrine system. The only thing that has changed in time is the type of danger. People nowadays mostly face psychological problems connected to interpersonal conflicts, lack of time, existential concerns, or small everyday problems, which require immediate physical reaction. Nevertheless, these issues trigger the same fight or flight response.
Imagine that you are in a situation that is vital for your survival. What is going to happen to your body under this sudden pressure?
A rise in heart rate pumps blood into the places where it is required; into the legs, so that you run faster (flight), or into the arms so you can punch harder (fight). The capacity of your lungs increases. At the same time, the blood does not flow into the places where it‘s not essential – eg. to the fingers or skin. Stress-induced constricted blood flow can cause tingling, numbness or paleness – like you can see when someone gets scared.
Faster breathing causes the oxygen running through the blood flow to transfer from the lungs to the large muscles, hence the amount of energy increases. This might come with unpleasant side-effects like chest pain, the sensation of feeling unable to breathe, or choking. A decrease in oxygen level causes dizziness, confusion and blurred vision.
Since the tension increases, you are able to punch harder. On the other hand, increased muscle tension leads to cramps or shivering.
Sweating cools down your muscles and body in order to prevent hyperthermia (overheating). It also helps in a fight since your body becomes clammy, making it difficult for your opponent to grasp hold of you.
Dilation of the pupils allows more light into the eyes which results in better vision. This is benefical when someone sneaks up on you from the side. Dilation of the pupils can also cause photophobia (light sensitivity), blurred vision or spots in your vision.
In the face of danger, digestion slows down in order to save energy. A common side effect is nausea or dryness in the mouth.
When a person is fully focused on a possible threat, he may find it hard to maintain attention or concentrate on other tasks.
Orientation reflex, which is an important mechanism triggered by change in one’s environment, may be one source of anxiety.
All these changes increase your chances of survival. Remember, they come automatically, and are triggered by danger in your environment. You were threatened, so you did not notice how your body reacted. And most importantly, you were able to interpret your behavior because you knew what motivated it.
As mentioned in the last point, stress causes a large number of changes in the human body, some of which may appear positive.
A certain amount of stress or arousal is neccessary for our health and performance. Stress stimulates us, and from a physiological point of view, an absolute absence of stress would be equal to death. It is important to realize that lack of stimulation can be very harmful for health and day-to-day functioning.
Let's take a look at the stress of today.
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