Is Your Stress Response Destroying Your Health?
A story of fight or flight, chronic pain, and ultimately healing.
Around 15 years ago, I started getting sick with a combination of migraines, muscle pain, headaches, and non-restorative sleep. I had moved to the city and started a new job with a fast pace, constant stress, and no breaks of any sort.
Several years earlier, I began to feel pain in my shoulders and head, which I would come to realize much later was the result of childhood trauma and not treating my body with the respect it deserved.
And when I started working a high-stress job, the pain was intermittent and certainly was bothersome, but I was able to keep up with the hectic pace of a large news station.
The symptoms would come and go, but it felt like a perpetual cold or low-grade flu.
I worked long hours and regularly clocked in a dozen hours of overtime each week. I was always stressed from working as much as I could to offset the rising costs of city life.
I thought, “Everyone is overworked. It’s normal to be stressed or so tired that you feel sick, right? It’s nothing that a 5-shot latte can’t fix.”
As an abuse survivor, I had a history of living in high-stress environments.
And although I didn’t realize it at the time, this way of life had become deeply ingrained in my day-to-day functioning, to the point that I liked high-stress environments and even sought them out. This was a grave mistake.
Then over the course of several years, the symptoms slowly worsened with painful episodes occurring more frequently.
I had daily headaches and routinely had days-long migraines that made it hard to eat, think, and speak.
The pain intensified and so I went to the doctor, then many doctors, to find out why my muscles constantly ached and burned with never-ending fatigue.
The doctors had no concrete explanation, except for degenerative disease, and abnormal spine and neck curvature, and what looked to be chronic severe whiplash.
There were many more speculations; maybe it was a disk injury, nerve problem, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain syndrome, or maybe it was just due to age, but I was only 27.
Nothing changed and the pain became worse. I was forced to reduce my working hours due to severe pain and fatigue. That was hard.
But with extra time on my hands, I stopped looking for a cure from mainstream medicine and began to read, research, and conduct my own clinical trials with different supplements and vitamins.
I also started thinking about pain and brain chemistry.
I decided that if nothing could abate the severe pain, then I could at least figure out which brain neurotransmitters were involved in signaling the pain response, and if I could figure this out then I could come up with a way to lessen the pain through a process of elimination.
So I learned about brain chemicals specifically, like Norepinephrine, Glutamate, Serotonin, Dopamine, and GABA.
I learned about how each chemical synergistically affects pain and how to naturally increase or decrease levels of each chemical.
I became very familiar with the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health’s research study database and spent many hours pouring over every study imaginable related to pain and brain function.
I educated myself on the symptoms produced when each chemical was either low or high.
Through a process of elimination, I came to the conclusion that increasing levels of the norepinephrine chemical could possibly help my severe pain.
Norepinephrine is the main neurotransmitter of the sympathetic nervous system.
We associate this with our fight-or-flight mechanism and moderation of other physical actions such as heart rate and blood pressure.
Too little norepinephrine and we become tired and lethargic.
Too much and we become anxious and nervous, our hands and feet go cold, and our blood pressure rises.
To increase my levels of norepinephrine, I gently walked and did pilates.
Then I targeted my diet and added in foods that boost norepinephrine levels such as bananas, cheese, eggs, salmon, oatmeal, and lentils and chickpeas.
I also began juicing organic vegetables.
I started to see an improvement in energy and began to think about how to increase oxygenation in muscles to improve function and decrease pain.
After more research, I decided to improve my breathing habits, meditate, and eat green vegetables and iron-rich foods.
Several years later I also added in liquid chlorophyll and felt my muscles noticeably soften.
With increased energy and better-managed chronic pain, I started to feel better.
So I developed phase two: personal trials of different supplements, carefully recorded for 6 months with a stringent dosage schedule.
I knew that I was in a constant state of stress due to the pain, so to start, I selected supplements that promoted a healthy stress response and energy level.
I tried each for 6 months and recorded the positive and negative effects of each supplement.
I ended up discovering that worked best for me was a combination of chelated magnesium; ashwagandha; vitamins b2, b6, b12, and d; and a food-grade multivitamin.
The supplements along with my diet modifications helped me more than anything that I was given at the doctor’s office, so I stuck with it and started to improve.
I was still in constant pain (a level 6 or 7 instead of a 9), but armed with new knowledge and slight improvement, I started to feel hope for the first time in years.
I continued to read and research different pain conditions and decided to try trigger point therapy to increase muscle oxygenation along with a nutritional and supplement protocol.
As luck would have it, my new physical therapist was well-versed in the fight-or-flight stress response and how it contributes to illness and pain.
From this practitioner’s standpoint, it was obvious that while I may have physical injuries, the worst of the pain was caused by chronic, twisted muscles from repetitive stresses and constant activation of an acute stress response, along with other physical injuries.
After this, I learned that decades of living and working in high-stress environments had caused my body to stay stuck in fight-or-flight mode, causing the effects to compound over time until my health was seriously jeopardized. I lived in high-alert-mode for a long time.
But I found a way out of the vicious cycle that the fight-or-flight response can create. And while it hasn’t been an easy process, I learned, studied, and persevered through extremely challenging circumstances.
So, with a hopeful eye to the future, here is everything else I know about the fight-or-flight response, along with practical ways to improve health.
What is a fight-or-flight response? The physiological process.
We often hear that everyone experiences stress.
And while this is true, the way that our bodies and minds react to stress is highly individualized, drawing on many factors such as environment, exposure, and genetics.
The science behind it:
The fight-or-flight response is a reaction to acute stress and occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically.
The response triggers the release of hormones to prepare your body to either stay and combat a threat or to run away to safety.
The physiological response:
What we perceive to be a stressful situation causes an avalanche of stress hormones that induce important physiological changes.
For example, a distressing occurrence can cause us to breathe harder, tense our muscles, or lose concentration. This shift helps us act quickly and escape potential danger.
This synthesis of physiological reactions is called the fight-or-flight response because it enabled humans and some mammals to either fight or quickly flee from harmful situations.
These natural hormonal changes and bodily responses have helped our species survive life-threatening circumstances.
On the other hand, the fight-or-flight response starts to work against us when our bodies overreact to situations that are stressful but not life-threatening, such as family pressures, daily stresses, or job difficulties.
Continual activation of the stress response strains the body and mind over time, with the potential to cause progressive damage.
Research studies also indicate that habitual stress can result in brain changes that lead to chronic pain, blocked arteries, migraines, addiction, and other harmful behaviors.
The specific physiology of fight-or-flight:
Our reaction to stress starts in the brain.
When we perceive danger or a threat to our well-being, such as witnessing a crime or a near-fatal car accident, our senses — mainly the ears and eyes — send an important message to the amygdala, our emotional processing center.
Our amygdala decodes the sights and sounds, and if any danger is recognized, this part of the brain quickly sends an alert signal to the hypothalamus.
This command center of the brain communicates with the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls our automatic body processes such as our heartbeat, breathing, and blood pressure.
This means that when a stressful occurrence happens, the hypothalamus sends messages that give a person the energy and correct signals to “fight” or “flee” a dangerous situation.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of two distinct parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The former is what triggers the fight-or-flight response, while the latter aids the body in relaxing after the danger has passed.
Following the amygdala’s danger signal, the hypothalamus prompts the sympathetic nervous system to pump signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands then respond by sending the hormone adrenaline (or epinephrine) into the bloodstream. While adrenaline spreads through the body, several physiological changes occur.
First, our heart rate speeds up, sending blood to vital organs and muscles. This causes our blood pressure to rise, and we start to breathe faster.
Airways in the lungs expand to increase oxygenation to the brain so that we feel more alert. As this is all occurring, the adrenaline also causes a cascade of glucose and fat to flood our bloodstream, resulting in increased energy.
If you’ve experienced flooding of adrenaline, you know that it tends to happen very quickly before the body and mind realize what is taking place.
It’s a powerful survival mechanism and is so systematized that this process can occur before the senses have even become aware of the danger. It’s what happens when a mother quickly jumps into action to save her child during an accident, purely on instinct.
Following this rush of adrenalin, the hypothalamus sends a message to the HPA axis of our stress response system. The HPA system is comprised of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands, each operating in tandem with the other.
The root of the problem is that our HPA axis begins to function abnormally when we constantly perceive danger, similar to a stuck gas pedal, and with time begins to overstimulate the body and mind.
By continually feeding stress, our hypothalamus has no choice but to release a corticotropin-releasing hormone, abbreviated as CRH.
CRH is sent to the pituitary gland, which then prompts the release of the adrenocorticotropic hormone (also known as ACTH), which is then sent to the adrenal glands, cueing the release of cortisol.
In a well-functioning stress system, cortisol levels fall after the danger has passed. The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and mitigates the stress response.
But when our system is continually stressed with chronic worries and perceived dangers, the HPA axis is continually activated and health problems begin to occur.
Over time, unrelenting adrenaline spikes can damage arteries and blood vessels, raising the risk of stroke and heart attacks.
This can also lead to diseases associated with chronic stress such as migraine, fibromyalgia, gut problems, and myofascial pain syndrome.
And heightened cortisol levels also require more energy, which comes in the form of increased appetite and storage of fat molecules.
Two techniques to mitigate the fight-or-flight response:
If too much stress is running your life and ruining your health, the below techniques may help.
Sometimes a combination of relaxation-promoting tools is necessary to effectively lessen the fight-or-flight response.
The 4–7–8 breathing exercise is quite simple, takes minimal time, is cost-free, and can be done anywhere and in any situation.
Begin by placing the tip of your tongue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it in place while completing the exercise.
∙ Completely exhale through your mouth.
∙ Close your mouth and inhale through your nose to a count of four.
∙ Hold your breath for a count of seven.
∙ And again, completely exhale through your mouth to a count of eight.
This is one 4–7–8 breath. Continue by repeating the process 3–4 times.
This is a helpful exercise that acts as a simple and effective relaxant to the entire nervous system.
If you find it difficult to hold your breath to a count of 7, like I did, start off with a count of 4 and modify the exercise to a 4–4–8 breathing pattern until you adjust.
With regular practice, this technique can become a powerful tool to use in any instance.
You can also use it preemptively when your flight-or-fight response is likely to be activated, such as before a big meeting or other stressful situation.
2. Physical Exercise
One of the most straightforward ways to calm a fight-or-flight response is through physical exercise. Exercise helps to metabolize stress hormones, resulting in a more peaceful and relaxed frame of mind.
To effectively dispel stress hormones, exercise hard enough to break a sweat for five minutes. This helps to lessen the negative effects of the stress response and also improves health.
Try walking briskly, doing squats, push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, running, or dancing.
To unwind in the evening, I often turn on a walking workout, and exercise gently for 15 minutes and finish up with 10 minutes of yoga. Then I head to bed more relaxed and tranquil.
Longer workouts are very beneficial, but to quickly and effectively reduce the flight-or-fight response, try exercising in short bursts.
It helps to remember that none of us are “perfect.” Even as we develop ourselves and grow, challenges will always arise. And sometimes, we may unconsciously shift back into fight-or-flight mode.
Nevertheless, we can choose how to respond to the world’s inevitable oppositions and return to a relaxed state that can effectively change our lives. I did it and you, dear one, you can too.
Disclaimer: This information, including but not limited to, text and images are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this article is education and entertainment. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.