How perpetual fight or flight can make you sick and the simple solutions

Your sympathetic nervous system is mobilized. Your breathing speeds up along with your heart rate. Your senses feel heightened and your muscles are tense. Suddenly a cascade of hormones flood your body. Will you stay and deal with the threat or run to safety? Fight or flight, which will it be?

Figuring Out Fight Or Flight

American physiologist Walter Cannon first described the fight or flight response in the 1920s when he noticed that a chain of rapidly occurring reactions helped to mobilize the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances. Today the fight-or-flight response is recognized as part of a stress response.

This is a mechanism that both humans and animals are equipped with to let them cope with dangers to their survival. It allows us to mobilize lots of energy to face perceived dangers, be it being barked at by an aggressive dog or walking alone during the night and having a sensation of being followed by someone. When a threat to survival is detected, a wide range of physiological changes follow. There are a few signs besides the changes in breathing and the heart rate — the thyroid gland stimulates metabolism and the adrenal cortex automatically releases stress hormones, such as cortisol.

Such a stress response allowed our ancestors to escape wild animal attacks and other dangers but nowadays this response is triggered even when there is no real threat since the brain can not distinguish between a perceived danger and a real one. Unfortunately, chronic stress can hijack the flight or fight system and cause a lot of damage as the human body stays under high alert even though there is no real danger.

As Mary Wingo, Ph. D., a scientist and author of the book The Impact of the Human Stress Response explains: “Basically almost all of the “diseases of civilization” manifest because the structure of the modernized world unnaturally abuses the stress response mechanisms. Up until the recent severe social and political instability we are now experiencing, there was really no danger (or excuse) for the explosion of stress-related diseases in modern history. The mechanisms of modern life ‘trick’ our stress responses into thinking that there is danger, when in fact there is not.”

The most evident example of living with chronic stress and being in perpetual fight or flight mode is PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Chronic stress appears in many individuals who have gone through some kind of trauma. While society often thinks that PTSD is the disorder which affects mainly war veterans, the truth is it is often diagnosed in people who have suffered or witnessed domestic violence, sexual abuse, and even political violence. It also can occur in civilians who survived a war or who have had an accident.

“Traumatic events are these, which involve a feeling of terror and helplessness. They do not have to be rare and out-of-ordinary human experiences,” explains Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, M.D., Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School and Director of Training at the Victims of Violence Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She adds, “With PTSD, the fight or flight response does not work correctly as the nervous system is on high alert even years after the traumatic event originally occurred. One could say that PTSD is a form of prolonged fight or flight response.”

The Low-Down On The Causes

Stress that causes chronic fight or flight mode can be also caused by environmental and social factors such as noise, pollution, anxiety, or interpersonal conflict.

Mary Wingo, Ph. D. says that the biggest causes of chronic stress and chronic fight or flight mode in a Westernized society are:

  • Loss of executive function and working memory (processing too much complexity — multitasking and working too hard)
  • Living in an unequal society (all societies are unequal which often leads to frustration in some of its members)
  • Loss of social capital (loss of social support)
  • Loss or derangement of the human biome (loss of the proper balance of the gut bacteria)
  • Chemical stress (antibiotics, pollution, and others)

It is surprising, but in fact, many people live under chronic stress and suffer many negative consequences and yet are not aware of this fact.

How Fight Or Flight Can Wreck Havoc On Your Body

Chronic stress causes serious damage. For instance sleep deprivation, just one of many manifestations of stress, can lead to loss of cognitive functions and weight gain. Living under a state of high alert can also alter the brain and induce long-lasting changes in both its structure and functioning. For example, high levels of cortisol causes stem cells in the brain to malfunction and doesn’t allow them to turn into neurons. Instead, the brain’s stem cells turn into a type of glial cells — oligodendrocytes which produce myelin that sheaths nerve cells. A healthy brain of an adult person does not turn lots of stem cells into these cells, but chronic stress changes this. This could explain why chronic stress affects learning and memory in a negative way as neurons are the basic working units of the brain. They are responsible for transmitting information to the muscles, nerve cells, and gland cells.

While sleep deprivation alone can lead to weight gain, living under constant stress also can change the way a person eats. Many people tend to overeat when stressed and reach for so-called comfort foods which usually contain high amounts of refined sugar and/or unhealthy fat. Gaining weight can cause poor self-esteem which often elevates the levels of stress even more, creating a vicious circle.

”The fight or flight response is part of a comprehensive set of mechanisms that allow us to adapt to whatever demands the environment throws at us,” says Wingo. “Specifically, when a person remains in the sympathetic nervous activation for extended periods of time, the affected tissues undergoes a phase shift and becomes relatively ‘malleable’ so that adaptation can take place. However, the downside is that the tissue loses structural integrity and becomes vulnerable to injury and stress-related disease, which is epidemic right now in our culture.”

Although PTSD is probably the most known disorder connected with stress, there are many others worth mentioning. They often appear alongside PTSD or each other. What diseases are we talking about? Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and idiopathic chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia (which is not caused by stress but chronic stress can be an important factor influencing this disease) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), to name just a few. Not to mention psychological disorders such as “burnout,” a condition associated with emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, lack of satisfaction with personal accomplishment, and low self-esteem. According to a study from Staples Advantage and WorkPlaceTrends, in 2015, more than a half of employees in the US felt overworked and burned out at work. This study also concluded that breaks at work are becoming rare as half of the workers say that they do not feel like they can afford a break at all.

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Best Ways To Bounce Back

So what can you do to limit the negative impact of stress?

According to Wingo, “The solutions are complex but in essence it is about self-educating oneself about what the major stressor types are in our society and then making up an itemized list of the ones that affect one’s life — which could be very large — and then systematically eliminating them.” She adds, “The key is for the person to understand that stress is addictive, and the more stressors one has, the greater the risk of stress related illness, injury, disability, or even early death. Then comes the tasks of consciously removing as many of the stressors as possible. I want folks to treat this as a risk assessment, much as one would with smoking or wearing seat belts. The greater the number of stressors, the greater the risk.”

As the brain is the central organ of the stress response, brain-centered interventions prove very effective. Changing behavior and lifestyle, introducing better sleep habits, and cultivating a positive outlook on reality are maybe not very easy to implement but are definitely worth giving a try.

Perhaps one of the most important lifestyle changes that is vital in reducing stress is introducing some form of physical activity. It has a positive influence on the brain and can help fight off depression, reduce stress, and improve memory. Other ways to combat stress include neurofeedback and meditation.

As Shelli Chosak, Ph.D., psychotherapist, consultant and author advises, “Of the three methods of reducing chronic stress — neurofeedback, meditation and physical exercise — the method you choose depends on your willingness to commit to practicing the method consistently enough to create positive results. Physical exercise and mindfulness meditation require regular practice — incorporating it into your daily activities has shown to be very helpful and the least  expensive alternative.  Neurofeedback requires about 20 visits to a practitioner experienced in this area who utilizes a device that measures your brainwaves and trains you to regulate your brain’s reactions. It has been shown to be most effective for people with ADHD, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and stroke. The results of studies relating to chronic stress are mixed.”

Giving natural supplements a try is also worthwhile as they can significantly help to reduce chronic flight or flight mode and its negative impact on health. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, stress management and nutrition expert, and Medical Advisory Board Member at Nutritional Magnesium Association advocates supplementing with magnesium: “Magnesium is an essential electrolyte and is known as the anti-stress mineral and is a natural sleep aid. Numerous studies have shown its effectiveness in reducing stress levels as well as helping with deeper more restful sleep. This mineral has been depleted from our soils and foods due to modern farming methods and food processing. Over 75 percent of Americans do not get their recommended daily allowance of magnesium, which is a co-factor in 700-800 enzyme reactions in the body. A deficiency can magnify stress because serotonin, the feel good brain chemical that is boosted artificially by some medications, depends on magnesium for its production and function.” She also mentions other crucial substances such as vitamin B complex (Dr. Dean recommends taking 100 mg twice a day to counteract stress and depression), tryptophan (500 mg – 1000 mg before sleep to stimulate serotonin production), and l-theanine (an amino acid for calming and relaxation).

But probably the most important thing in stress management is social support. Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, M.D. says: “I don’t think patients, survivors, [or] victimized people can recover in isolation. They need other people and they need to take action in affiliation with others.”

Chronic stress and being in perpetual fight or flight mode is affecting a significant amount of the population. As the latest study by American Psychological Association found out, almost one-third of adults report that stress has a very strong or strong impact on their body/physical health and mental health (31 and 32 percent in 2015, compared to 25 and 28 percent in 2014, respectively). Fortunately, research helps us understand its causes and effects and therefore makes it easier to manage stress. It’s crucial to address the growing concern  of high stress in daily life as it has a huge impact on human health and can contribute to many diseases.

Danuta J. Detyna is a lawyer who ditched law to pursue her real passion – writing. She can not imagine  life without researching health and nutrition news, aviation, psychology, and traveling.

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