In the face of a potential threat, your brain often reacts by activating a "fight, flight, or freeze" response to keep you safe. By releasing hormones, your body prepares you to do whatever is necessary—as the name suggests, that includes fighting, fleeing, or freezing—to keep you alive.
While that response is helpful in times of danger, your body sometimes overuses it. And that can cause stress, wreaking havoc on the body and the mind.
Different people present stress in entirely different ways. For example, one person may lay awake at night, mindlessly scrolling through social media, unable to rest their eyes. On the other hand, their partner may sleep soundly through the night but constantly forgets their keys and becomes incredibly irritable around important deadlines.
Here's what you need to know about the effects of your body's "fight, flight, or freeze" response and how to relieve stress.
How To Indicate Stress
To account for a wide range of how stress presents in people, healthcare providers look at various categories. Those include changes in health, energy, behavior, and mood, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They rely on your self-reported feelings and can even bring attention to symptoms you may have never known were stress causes.
The timing of your symptoms can also help specify the situations, or triggers, that bring you stress. Or, perhaps your anxiety and frustration are the results of a chronic state of emotional distress. For example, if your blood pressure increases after a rough chat with your boss but quickly returns to normal, you may be experiencing a healthy stress response.
But if you constantly replay your boss's words in your head and fixate on the chat days later, or you develop a new obsession with late-night gaming to help cope with anxious feelings, you may be battling chronic stress.
How Does Stress Affect the Body?
Stress is a normal part of everyday life. But it is when your "fight, flight, or freeze" response does not shut off that your health can become impacted. Difficulties often arise in several key areas—psychological, physical, behavioral, and interpersonal.
The development of anxiety and depression can be a cause for concern. You may experience constant worry if your brain is always looking for danger. Or, you can start feeling hopeless due to the never-ending dread. Both of those feelings can cause issues with sleep, concentration, and memory due to an overload of worried thoughts, according to the National Library of Medicine.
When your body’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response activates, your brain releases cortisol, the hormone that causes a rush of adrenaline. You may feel your heart beating rapidly or experience overwhelming bouts of energy.
But too much cortisol may cause physical changes, like weight gain, high blood pressure, and oral health issues, per the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library. You may also experience flare-ups of existing chronic health conditions, such as eczema and irritable bowel syndrome.
Your body is smart. It knows that being under too much stress is not good for you. So, your body might crave things that help it escape negative feelings and relax. Unfortunately, those are not always the healthiest ways to relieve stress.
Common behavioral changes include increasing alcohol or drug intake, consuming high-carbohydrate foods, and distracting yourself with hours of mindless scrolling on social media. While those activities can provide immediate relief from stress, they may also bring about an onslaught of new, long-term health problems.
Have you ever noticed that your patience runs thin whenever you are nearing an important deadline? Well, sometimes it takes calm to be kind.
Your brain works to keep you safe from stressors, not necessarily to be nice. You may notice increased irritability or anger. Or depending on your temperament, you may also become increasingly reliant on people and seek reassurance or even unwittingly push others away.
Healthy Ways To Relieve Stress
Although stressors can have several emotional and physical effects on your body, there are healthy ways to relieve those negative feelings.
It is important to note that your brain may fight you on relaxing. When it thinks it is protecting you from danger, your body may recognize slowing down as an additional threat. Notice the hesitation, remind yourself that there is no imminent threat, and give a few of the following stress relievers a try.
Buy Yourself Time and Space
Allowing your brain time to adjust and "come down" from stressful activities helps your system regulate healthily. If you are quickly jumping between virtual work meetings to lunch preparations and then onto a stressful phone call, it is easy to become anxious.
Remember to add a little space. Pause before answering your phone, give yourself five minutes to try some deep breathing between work and family time, set an alarm reminding you to stretch throughout the day, and find ways to delegate some tasks. Each little bit can help stress dissipate.
Experiment With Options That Soothe Your Mind
It may take some trial and error, but finding techniques that reduce stress can be helpful for chronic stress. You may try gentle exercise (high-energy workouts can increase your heart rate, aggravating your body’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response), Epsom salt baths, deep breathing exercises, and guided meditations. Mindless activities like coloring or crafts can also help distract your brain from worrying thoughts.
As you try different activities, remember to keep track of what works and what does not. You can keep a list of helpful stress relievers and access them whenever necessary.
Reduce Things That Amp up Your System
Consuming caffeine, alcohol, and high-sugar foods and scrolling through social media may be tempting when stress is especially high. Those activities may offer short-term diversion and enjoyment. However, per the CDC, the long-term consequences are often increased anxiety and poor sleep quality.
Getting professional help if you are feeling overwhelmed is never a bad plan. Suppose stress continues affecting your ability to concentrate on and complete everyday activities after trying some healthy stress relievers. In that case, you may try virtual therapy or reach out to a healthcare provider for additional support.
Please seek immediate help if you have any thoughts of self-harm. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is there to help at 1-800-273-8255. No one needs to experience stress alone.