What is stress anyway?

Mar 8, 2023

The stress response evolved to increase our chances of survival in the face of threats in the environment. It is a complex physiological and psychological reaction that helps the body prepare for action to cope with potentially life-threatening situations. This is the fight-or-flight response, and we know what it feels like.

The amygdala activates this response, and it doesn’t require any explicit ‘instruction’ from you. With lightning speed, it signals your brain to pump stress hormones, preparing your body to either fight for survival or to flee to safety. The adrenal glands release cortisol and other stress hormones, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones prepare the body for action by increasing heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure, and redirecting blood flow to the muscles. Cognitive abilities like organization, memory, and problem solving abilities are disrupted.

This brings me right back to that four-foot rattlesnake slithering fast across the trail during my hike in the Santa Monica mountains. Just thinking about it now makes my heart pound. I don’t need to look at the photo to remember exactly where I saw that snake and how it looked. My brain has encoded this threat and I’m vigilant about rattlesnakes when I hike, especially on that one trail in that one place. I’m grateful that my adaptive stress response kicked in that day and made sure my companion and I stayed safe!

Unfortunately, not all stress responses are adaptive. The body does not differentiate between real or imagined threats which seem omnipresent in our lives, and a full-on stress response can kick when there is no physical threat. Imagine yourself walking into the office on a Monday morning after a relaxing weekend. Your heart pounds as you think about all the work you have to do: tackling your Inbox, preparing a presentation, making that difficult phone call you’ve been putting off since Friday. It’s 9:15 a.m., you’ve got a headache, and you’re struggling to focus.

Chronic stress has negative impacts on physical and mental health. Over time, chronic stress can lead to a range of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, immune system dysfunction, and mental health symptoms and disorders. It can take the forms of irritability, avoidance, denial, or rumination. We may develop maladaptive behaviors which provide temporary relief from stress, such as substance abuse, overeating, or engaging in compulsions to bind our anxiety. Bad stuff in our bodies and minds.

Stress management is a skill for living. Tapping is one way to manage stress, and the tools are your words and your hands.