Stressors, stress and stress response

A good storyline has a beginning and ending, but the most exciting part of any story is the middle – the journey. You see, there is so much in our external and internal environments that affects our health and wellbeing that we ignore, consciously and unconsciously. To give you an example, let me take you back to the basics and introduce you to your long-lost relative Fred, our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestor. 

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were the first humans to routinely hunt large animals. They actively killed animals for food instead of scavenging meat left behind by other predators.

This period spanned most of the existence of Homo sapiens, dating from the first anatomically modern humans 200,000 years ago to the transition to permanent agricultural communities around 10,000 B.C.

When Fred and his buddies went hunting animals and gathering food, they used very little energy on mundane tasks and reserved substantial amounts of energy in case they were confronted by their main stressors, the woolly mammoth or saber-toothed tiger.

When Fred was confronted by these ferocious animals, you can bet your boots his first instinctive response was fear and immediately his body allowed him, in a split second, to increase his physical power and speed and to instantly fight harder or run very fast away from the threat to his survival.

When Fred became aware of the wild animal and perceived he was in danger, his automatic unconscious stress response kicked in and instantly adjusted his biology, physiology, psychology and behaviour so he could survive the encounter. So, to cope with the threat of wild animals and to ensure survival, our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ brain-body connections triggered the best possible response to the threat.

In order to fight or flee, their brain activated instant power, strength and stamina by flooding their body with the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline, which redirected blood away from their body’s core (all muscles except the muscles of the legs and arms), away from the digestive system, away from the feet, hands and brain, and away from the immune system which was immediately depressed.

The muscles of the arms and legs tensed for action, the pupils dilated and sharpened their focus, blood pressure increased, the heart pumped extra blood faster to the large muscles of the arms and legs.

This all happened in the span of a single heartbeat because the brain immediately adjusted the body’s biological and physiological processes based on the fear response it picked up the minute Fred appraised the situation and perceived there was danger.

The scientific name for this fight or flight response is acute stress response; a short-term stress response.

Fight = Anger, Flight = Fear

Two basic human emotions. Our prehistoric ancestors depended on this response for their survival.

This response was all about fear and how they coped with and managed their fears. Their brains and bodies were programmed to instinctively cope with the threats in their external environments by providing the tools necessary to fight for survival or flee from death and, in prehistoric times, this instinctive anger or fear response ensured not only their survival but also ours.

So, why should we be interested in our ancestor hunter-gatherer’s acute stress response? Surely, we are very different, upgraded humans, more advanced and refined?

Well, the bad news is, after millions of years of evolution, our brains and hormones provide us today with exactly the same acute stress response our ancestor hunter-gatherers experienced.

Our physiology, biology and psychology are exactly the same today, the only difference is our behaviour. We have the exact same hormones running through our bloodstream every time we trigger a stress response and, in this fast moving, unstable, technological world we live in today, this is turned on 100% of the time while we only need it 10% of the time and the hormones flooding our bloodstreams keep us in constant ‘alert mode’.

Let this sink in; we have totally different stressors today, but the very same tools our ancestor hunter-gatherers had to deal with these very different stressors; tools that are totally unacceptable in our society today. We cannot physically lash out at every stressor we encounter, nor can we run away as fast as possible.

If our acute stressors are not resolved, they become chronic stressors, which trigger a chronic stress response, adding more hormones to the list that, over long periods of time, wear down our bodies and minds causing physical and psychological illness.

This is why we need to understand how our stress response system works, how we can manipulate it; work with it instead of against it. We need to learn how to turn off our stress response and let our amazing, programmed, stress response system work with us not against us.

By Joan Maycock

Joan Maycock MSc Health Psychologist, BSc Psychologist, Counsellor Mediator, Consultant, Researcher, Trainer and Stress and Burnout Programme Developer. After living in the Netherlands, I moved to Portugal last year. My focus is on developing stress education programmes designed to get everyone thinking about reducing, preventing and managing stress and burnout.

915 793 592 | [email protected]