by Dr. Chelsea Graziano, Assistant Director of Case Management
When an individual is experiencing stress, their body activates their sympathetic nervous system, often known as the “fight or flight” response. This name is based in the evolutionary theory that when the body becomes stimulated by something that is dangerous to our safety, it needs to be prepared to do one of two things: fight to stay alive or escape the danger. These may have been an individual’s best options for survival during early evolutionary history when the major sources of stress were life threatening. (Think wooly mammoths and competing tribes with spears!) However, “fight or flight” responses do not always work with today’s life stressors. Despite our internal desires to want to fight the person who cuts us off in traffic or flee from our jobs when a co-worker leaves piles of paperwork on our desk at 4:15 on Friday, “fight or flight” is just not how most modern stressors are handled effectively. Yet, our bodies are still conditioned to go through this process when they are under stress.
Of course, the ‘fight or flight’ response is a great evolutionary response to real emergency situations and helps to keep us alive when facing physical danger. The problem with the system is that prolonged stress due to other causes also leads to the activation of the system. In this way, the “fight or flight” system is essentially working against you by being activated when it really does not need to be. The fight or flight response in the body is fueled by the production of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which have significant physical effects on the body.
Over time the effect of stress on the body can compound. The build-up of stress can lead to a psychosomatic reaction within the body, a physical reaction that is caused by psychological factors. Recurrent headaches, increased blood pressure and heart rate, gastrointestinal distress, and muscle spasms, soreness, or fatigue, can all be caused by psychosomatic stress reactions. If unmanaged, stress can lead to the development of hypertension (long term high blood pressure) or stomach ulcers, among other negative physical symptoms and disorders.
One way to counter the effects of the “fight or flight” response on the body is to consciously activate its opposite physiological response, the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” response. By activating this system, you can counteract the negative effects of stress on the body. Relaxation is a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” response. However, if automatic relaxation were that easy, we would all be Zen masters, right?
The reality is that initiating conscious relaxation takes continued practice. Targeting physical relaxation can be helpful to individuals who are feeling physical effects due to the build up of stress. An individual’s physical state can have a significant effect on their cognitive state. Physical relaxation can go a long way to helping you manage your cognitive stress. Progress Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a great exercise that targets the physical symptoms of stress on the body. There are many different forms of PMR that range from self-guided scripts to recorded videos or audio tracks. If you are interested in giving PMR a try to see if it can help you to manage the physical effects of stress on your body, feel free to check out some of the following resources.
From Therapist Aid:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nZEdqcGVzo (audio recording)