Deactivating the Stress Response

Article written by Tamra Holder, LMT

Chronic activation of the Stress Response impairs health,” according to an article by Harvard Health Publishing first published in March, 2011 and updated in March 2016. We’ve all almost certainly experienced the stress response also known as the “fight or flight response.” It is an important survival mechanism that allows us to react instantaneously to life-threatening situations like being able to jump out of the way of an oncoming car. The problem arises when not life-threatening stressors, such as getting all worked up in a traffic jam, feeling anxious about infertility, persistently worrying about a relationship or a work deadline repeatedly activate the stress response.

Real or Perceived, No Difference
Whether life-threatening or not, the stress response is the same cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated almost instantaneous physiological changes, including heart pounding, breath quickening, muscles tensing and sweating. As long as the brain continues to perceive danger, the sympathetic nervous system triggers hormones to be released and the body remains revved up, activated, on high alert. It isn’t until the perception of threat dissolves and the parasympathetic nervous system puts on the brakes that a relaxed feeling in the body is restored.

Your “Normal” or Signs of Imbalance?
Long-term repeated release of stress hormones or a chronic low-level stress state contributes to a host of maladies including raising the risk of heart attack or stroke. Toxins can build up and symptoms of less than optimal health may appear. What we may have come to accept as “normal” are actually signs of imbalance: digestive issues (gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea), acne, mood swings, headaches, menstrual cycle issues (heavy or scanty bleeding, painful cramping, irregular periods, pain at ovulation, or bleeding between cycles), sleep issues (difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep or not getting enough sleep or not feeling rested upon waking) just to name a few. The stress response depletes the body’s energy stores, throws hormones out of balance and contributes to increased appetite and weight gain.

Deactivating the Stress Response
The sympathetic nervous system activity triggered by stress response may be countered using a combination of approaches that elicit the relaxation response. Active methods include deep breathing, yoga, tai chi and qi gong. Passive methods include massage, taking a sauna or hot bath. Just as stress reactions can become a life negating habit, shifting gears, slowing down and initiating the relaxation response can become a life affirming pattern that supports health, harmony and hormone balance.

Shifting the Balance Toward Health
Both aspects of our nervous system exist: the stress response and the relaxation response are elegantly designed to keep us out of harms way and give us the opportunity to recover from such events and live in a relaxed and calm way. You can consciously choose to direct your system toward a more relaxed state of being and recover your health by giving yourself the regular and frequent experience of a deeply relaxed state. Your body can then clean up toxins created by repeated stress reactions and you can experience the rest and recovery aspect of your nervous system with deep relaxation. This is important because even visiting this state of deep relaxation on a somewhat regular basis, begins to shift the balance toward health.

To read the Harvard Health Publishing article visit: