Is That A … Bobcat Chasing You??
What’s the single most significant root cause of symptoms and diagnoses that we see here in our FWT clientele? Without hesitation, our coaching team all agrees that it’s STRESS.
While the human body is designed to weather episodic acute stress, we aren’t designed to be in a stress response constantly.
When we see something as stressful (both good and bad!), the brain responds accordingly, putting us into energetic action. We shift into “fight or flight” mode (also known as fight/flight/freeze/hide), which, from a physiological standpoint, gets us ready to handle the stress so that we can return safely to what we were doing before. And then when the threat is over just a short time later, we can return to our normal activities as if nothing had occurred. Crisis averted!
To put into perspective what is supposed to happen with an acute stress response, let’s look at an innocent grazing deer. After all, we are animals and so we share a response to threats on our lives similar to the rest of the animal kingdom. Imagine this sweet deer is enjoying its day, minding its own business, happily grazing in long grass under the warm sun. Suddenly, a bobcat slinks down a tree branch and stealthily approaches the deer, excited for his lunch. The deer spies the bobcat and notes the immediate threat, triggering, among other stress chemicals, cortisol to be released. This allows the deer to run fast and escape, and, once it is alone again, the stress hormones are cleared and Bambi goes right back to chomping his rudely disrupted meal. Fight or flight is no longer needed. Calm resumes.
A Deeper Understanding of the Stress Response
When the stress response becomes activated, many organs and glands swing into action to support survival, and we can see and feel the results of this: increased heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood glucose, and shunting of blood to muscles and limbs to literally run in fast bursts while oxygenating tissue. This is especially accomplished with the release of cortisol, our stress and get-up-and-go hormone that also tells the liver to release that blood glucose. While this is happening, the body deprioritizes digestion (Can’t take the time to eat or break down food now! Busy running for survival!), immune function (No time to fight that infection!), and reproduction. This is appropriate for short stints, but long-term, these dynamics become further entrenched, and the body’s balance becomes thrown off. We can develop digestive symptoms like reflux or diarrhea, poor immune response, reproductive issues, blood sugar dysregulation and metabolic dysfunction and elevated cholesterol, and more.
Acute stress is normal, and even healthy. It can be invigorating. It can motivate us to complete projects and achieve goals. However, emphasis is on acute. Short term. Temporary.
In the U.S., some of us wear the I’m-so-stressed-out badge of honor constantly. Our threat isn’t the bobcat. It’s modern society and our own minds, the constant worrying, social pressure, unrelenting work deadlines, phones pinging at all hours, unhealthy relationships, financial concerns, difficult relationships. Unlike that peaceful deer, we rarely perceive a time of calm and safety, and so our bodies remain hypervigilant and in a constant readiness to flee or fight for survival.
And unfortunately for our bodies, while these aren’t actual threats to our lives, the brain doesn’t distinguish between perceived threat (all the “stuff” in the environment) and an actual threat. It produces the same physiological response to both. (We can experience this while watching a thrilling movie: you might notice increased heart rate increase, tense muscles, faster, more shallow breathing in response to the horrors on the screen, but you are by no means in actual danger.)
Why Does Experiencing Prolonged Stress Matter to Me?
Prolonged stress over time impacts our health greatly: increased blood sugar, insulin resistance, metabolic dysfunction, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, exhaustion, heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression, digestive distress, breathing issues…the list goes on. Which is why we consider poor stress management to be a root cause of many people’s symptoms and health conditions. At FWT, we assess stress levels and management in every client and support them in figuring out how it impacts them and how they may address it. This is a critical component of getting well and staying well.