Nearly two years into a “pandemic,” Americans are stressed as ever. Schools are losing teachers, our sick-care system is falling apart, and businesses are shutting down left and right. Two-thirds of Americans report moderate to high levels of recent stress, with half reporting stress that has increased in the last year. So the real pandemic might just be the one of mental health.
The human body was magnificently designed to adapt to acutely stressful situations. However, long-term or chronic stress is another story. Living in a constant state of fight-or-flight is more than an inconvenience. It can be deadly.
The state of stress today
Stress is at an all-time high. Standing in line at the grocery store, sitting in an airport, waiting for a car to be fixed, a high energy of tension surrounds us all. Never mind turning on the news — which we don’t recommend. Stress is everywhere, and it takes a concerted effort to keep ourselves from absorbing the toxicity.
According to the American Psychological Association, we are in a national mental health crisis. Nearly eight in ten Americans say that the coronavirus is a significant source of stress in their life. Americans are also worried about their families, finances, and the state of the nation. In addition, nearly 20 percent of people report that their mental health is worse than it was at this time last year.
Fight-or-flight: Helpful or harmful?
All living beings have an innate urge to survive, and humans are no exception. Survival instincts trace back to the beginning of time when our ancient ancestors faced genuinely life-threatening situations. Sheltering in caves or trees, our predecessors spent a good portion of their life looking for food or trying not to become food.
Humans had a few life-preserving reactions when faced with an emergency during prehistoric times. In an effort to survive, they either fought their attacker, ran away, or sometimes froze and hid. This evolutionary “fight-or-flight” response helped save humans from potentially threatening situations and can be credited for the existence of our human race today. However, our ancestors’ response also frames how our nervous system currently works.
What is an acute stress response?
When the body faces a threat, perceived or actual, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is activated. The ANS is the part of the nervous system responsible for controlling our unconscious reflexes.
The autonomic nervous system consists of the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system directs the body’s response to dangerous situations. A flood of hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are released during a stressful situation. These hormones, theoretically preparing the body to fight or flee, cause the following cascade of events:
- Increased heart rate and breathing: An elevated heart rate allows the body to send more oxygen to vital organs such as the brain and legs, preparing for either a fight or an escape.
- Dilation of pupils: Peripheral vision increases and pupils dilate to allow for better sight.
- Pale or flushed skin: As blood shunts to necessary organs, the skin may get pale, sweat, or have goosebumps.
- Digestion slows or stops: Blood circulation slows to areas of the body that are not immediately life-saving.
- Loss of control of bowel or bladder: The flood of hormones associated with fight-or-flight sometimes causes a loss of elimination reflexes.
- Decreased perception of pain: Pain tolerance increases so that individuals can fight if needed.
- Trembling or shaking: The release of adrenaline during an emergency can cause shaking of the muscles.
The sympathetic nervous system is designed to respond to acute stress, which occurs for seconds or a couple of hours. For example, the sympathetic nervous system comes in handy when avoiding a close call on the roadways. In short bursts, the body’s stress response is helpful, even life-saving. However, staying in a sympathetic state for prolonged periods wreaks havoc on health.
Our bodies prefer to spend most of their time in the parasympathetic state. This “rest-and-digest” state restores our body to homeostasis. In addition, the parasympathetic nervous system decreases heart rate, assists with digestion, and induces a state of relaxation and healing.
What happens to the heart during fight-or-flight?
Our cardiovascular system works best when in a relaxed parasympathetic state. However, when fight-or-flight is activated, it increases heart rate and blood pressure, as well as a release of glucose in the bloodstream. While these occurrences are not dangerous in the short term, remaining in this heightened state for an extended time can lead to problems with the heart.
The fight-or-flight response also triggers the over-production of a type of white blood cell called leukocytes. These leukocytes contribute to inflammation in the blood vessels, creating an environment conducive to heart attacks and strokes. A 2018 study found that the fight-or-flight response increases the risk of heart attacks, specifically in those with diabetes.
Not only does stress negatively impact the heart, but it also might accelerate aging. While parents joke that their hair is turning gray due to the stressful impacts of child-rearing, there may be an element of truth in that statement. A recent study out of Yale concluded that stress causes aging. Researchers issued stress surveys and collected blood samples for 444 participants. They found that individuals with higher chronic stress levels exhibited more physiological changes associated with aging.
Turning down the fight-or-flight response
Our modern lives are filled with seemingly endless stressors. While we may not regularly fight off sabertooth tigers, we face a daily barrage of anxiety-provoking events. So, how do you turn down the stress level in this increasingly stressful world?
Keeping our bodies in a parasympathetic state takes dedication and attention. Wake up each morning and set the intention to live in a peaceful and harmonious state. If you notice your stress levels begin to rise, step away from your activity and take some deep breaths. Other ways to return to a resting state include:
- Get quality sleep Sleep naturally activates our parasympathetic system, allowing our bodies to recover from the day. Quality sleep helps ensure that you have enough reserve to handle the stressors that come your way.
- Remove or reduce negative distractions – We live in a world of 24/7 access to the news. Unfortunately, the news often offers little new information and instead is meant to sensationalize events for ratings. Constantly exposing yourself to negativity creates stress and leads your body to a sympathetic state.
- Get outside and enjoy the calming benefits of nature – Multiple studies have shown that spending time in nature activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The calming effects of nature lower heart rate and improve mood.
- Practice relaxation techniques – Breath is our connection to a parasympathetic state. Slow and intentional breathing, as well as meditation, can tip the scales and bring the body out of the sympathetic state.
- Spend time with the people you love – Healthy relationships help keep our bodies in a relaxed state of being. The love hormone oxytocin helps to dispel stress. On the other hand, negative interactions are perceived as threats and stimulate the body’s sympathetic nervous system.
- Move your body – Exercise releases feel-good endorphins and helps to remove excess energy stored throughout a stressful day. When exercising, your body is in a sympathetic state. However, mild to moderate exercise primes your nervous system and allows your body to flow back to the parasympathetic state more easily.
There is a tremendous amount of focus on diet and exercise regarding heart health. However, we often neglect the detrimental toll stress takes on the body. Excess time spent in fight-or-flight leads to serious health problems, especially when it comes to the heart. If you need a little extra help bringing down that fight-or-flight stress response, our Relax — Cherry supplement can help you do just that. In this stressful world, learning how to bring your body back to a state of balance is the key to health.
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Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD