Biology of the Stress Response

It is often the case that you have to understand something before you can effectively deal with it. An understanding of the biological processes involved in stress will assist you in identifying what is happening to you at each moment as you enter a state of stress. This understanding may enable you to counteract the patterns of your stress response. If nothing else, you will see that you are only a human being responding to external events in a human way.
Stress results when you feel as if you do not have the resources to cope with a physical, mental, or emotional challenge. That challenge may be real, or it may be the result of misinformation, delusional thinking, or some other form of error.

The word 'stress' was coined by the endocrinologist Hans Selye in the 1930s to refer to certain observable physiological responses in lab animals. He also coined the word 'stressor' to refer to the external threat that is the cause of the stress reaction. Selye developed a three-stage model of the stress reaction that he called the general adaptation syndrome, or GAS.

The first stage is alarm. The organism initially responds to stressors with alarm. You may have heard of the so-called fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response occurs during the first stage of stress as adrenaline surges through the bloodstream.

The second stage is resistance. The organism tries frantically to accommodate the stressor and cope with it. However, the organism cannot keep doing this, so there is a gradual depletion in resources, leading to the third stage.

The third stage is exhaustion. This occurs when the organism has depleted all its resources and is unable to function properly. At this stage, your heart rate skyrockets, you sweat profusely, and you experience various other uncomfortable phenomena. If the third stage persists indefinitely, you are at great risk of incurring physiological damage. This damage usually results from a demand on the endocrine and immune systems that is much too high. The end result is probably not news to you: ulcers, digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), cardiovascular issues, and various mental issues spanning the neurosis-psychosis spectrum, such as depression.

Fortunately, you are not merely a biological organism forever at the mercy of programmed robotic responses. What gives you the edge over virtually every other organism in the animal kingdom is that distinctly human trait: higher cognition. Through your reason and rationality, you have the power to rewire a great portion of your stress response. Before external events can put your stress circuitry into gear, those events must first be perceived. And human perception is inextricably linked to human cognition. The irony is that without human cognition, you would hardly react the way you do to the little trifles of life. Your stress reserves would be saved for the next time a lion pounces at you. There is much to be said for the significant role that thought plays in stress.

Rather than thinking of your stress response as a cruel enemy, learn to embrace the inner wisdom of your body as it goes about its task of ensuring your survival. Your stress response has protected you numerous times throughout your life and will continue doing so for as long as you live. It is like a close pal or relative who is apt to overreact at times and who you sometimes wish would butt out of your business, but who deep down you know will always be there wanting the best for you.