From an ancestral perspective, the bodies stress response mechanism is perfect.
We’re out gathering some food with out friends, with not a worry in the world. We’re well nourished, we sleep deeply, have a close nit community and stress levels are low.
In a flash, this all changes. It turns out a bear was also out looking for some food. Feeling threatened it looks you in the eye and starts charging towards you.
Without thinking, your bodies autonomic stress system kicks in. There is a very real and very immediate threat of danger – life threatening danger.
Your body diverts blood flow from the digestive tract – those berries you have been snacking on can be digested later, if later even comes.
The immune response to that scratch has been put on hold – the body need not worry about a potential infection when there are more pressing issues at hand.
Instead your adrenal cortex releases cortisol – the bodies major stress hormone.
With cortisol now in the blood, stored glucose is pulled from the liver giving the body a rapid boost in energy.
The blood that was going to the gut and intestines, is now shunted to the muscles. This blood fuels the legs and arms for the upcoming fight – or flight to safety.
Adrenaline is also released as part of this stress response, in turn this causes heart rate and respiration rate to rise. The body is being primed for performance.
Blood pressure is also rising as the blood vessels constrict. It’s paramount that glucose, oxygen and other nutrients can be delivered to the muscles as rapidly as possible,
Your vision becomes narrowed and your cognitive function swings towards more primitive thinking. That painting you were hoping to work on later in the day is far too complex for the brain to process at the moment.
Saliva and tear production is halted, likewise your reproductive organs are pushed down the list in regards to the bodies priorities.
That potential partner you had been eyeing up earlier is no longer on your mind. High libido is pointless when you could be dead in a few minutes.
More blood is freed up from the reproductive organs and sent to the muscles. Pregnenolone – the building block of testosterone – is redirected to be made into the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Again – making babies can come later… hopefully!
The Bear Charges
The body is primed for movement as the stressor – the wild charging bear – rapidly approaches.
Given the highly alert and responsive brain and body, you make a dash, unconsciously grabbing your spear in a swift movement.
You jump over a fallen tree, swiftly turn around and hide at the base. As the bear approaches the fallen log you reactively jump up and thrust the spear into the bears chest hitting the heart and killing it instantly.
All of this happened in 30 seconds, and now with the stressor removed, your body starts to calm down as the villages come out to see what has just happened.
Cortisol and adrenaline is cleared from the body, blood is redirected back to the digestive tract.
That scratch you had has now become a gaping wound as it got caught on a thorn in the frenzy. So your immune system can now send white blood cells to the damaged site.
And that potential mate you had been eyeing up all week… they come over and give you a big hug and kiss. Not only are they happy you are alive, but you have shown amazing strength and fed the village for a week!
Instantly you feel blood flowing back to your reproductive organs and heightened sensitivity. Baby making is now back on the cards!
Traffic Jams, Bills & Sleep Deprivation – The New Wild Bear
Fortunately, most of us will never have to run from a wild bear. But that doesn’t mean our stress response will never have to kick in.
In fact, our stress response system is most likely more active in our modern world than it was in simpler times.
You see, the body does not differentiate between stress sources. Whether it was a wild bear or a angry rival village-man, our stress response would be the same.
This means that stress we face when we’re running late for work, or when we worry about paying bills – these also trigger the same stress response.
The body senses a threat, or danger and it helps us overcome this danger by doing all the things that I outlined in the bear scenario.
Though we don’t live in a primitive era where the mere task of collecting food could be life threatening – most of us in modern society may actually live in a more stressful world.
Stop and think about all the stressful events you face in a day – you wake up to a screeching alarm getting less sleep than your body needs (impacting the ability to handle stress load).
You dart around the house getting your children ready for school while panic sets in as you haven’t ironed your work clothes… and today is the day you do that presentation to your new boss.
Speaking of which, you needed to fix up a few things in the powerpoint file and were meant to get up 15minutes earlier than usual – more stress.
As you rush out the door you learn there’s been an accident on the highway, meaning you are stuck in a mile long traffic jam.
Whilst in the car you hear about some terror event in the country – adding more fear to the already stressed body.
I could go on an on, maybe you get yelled out for being late, or the snack you eat on the rush has some synthetic flavour enhancer that triggers an autoimmune response, or perhaps its the midday spin class with loud pumping music and a fired up instructor yelling at you for an hour… all these things are creating more of a stress load on an already stressed body.
All this and we think we are an advanced sophisticated society…
The Issues This Has On Our Health
If this scenario resonates with you (the modern life stressors, not the bear attack stress!) then you need to know that you’re doing a lot of damage to your health.
Chronic stress is related to everything from infertility to depression and heart disease to insomnia (1,2,3,4) .
Every time you get stuck in a traffic jam, eat something that isn’t supportive to good health, or worry about an upcoming bill or deadline you are activating that primal fight or flight stress response.
Your immune function is lowered (making you prone to more colds and flus), heart rate and blood pressure elevated (that is why the low sodium diet isn’t helping bring your blood pressure down), cognitive ability slows (brain fog anyone?), digestion is impaired (causing ulcers, stomach pains and malnourishment) and finally the bodies resources are directed to make stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol – at the expense of our sex hormones like testosterone (causing issues around infertility, low libido and fat gain).
This is why stress mitigation and removal is so vital for optimal health. More so than those fancy supplements you are popping or that radical training program you follow.
There Is A Natural Remedy
Quit your job, and move to a pristine mountain top resort with all your worries taken care of.
Ok so maybe that’s not practical.
But something that is practical is improving your stress resilience. Improving the way your body handles stress.
You can do this in two major ways. First – reduce the stress load in your life. Getting rid of overdue debts, finding a less stressful job with a shorter commute. Hiring a nanny. Eating organic food.
The second – improve the way you handle stress.
So if you can’t find a job closer to home, then learn to use a potential stressful event such as being stuck in a traffic jam, as a time to destress – put on some of your favourite songs and sing a long. Or do some deep rhythmic breathing to lower your stress response.
Or better yet, don’t let these things bother you. Know that the traffic jam is out of your control, accept that you will be late and know that your boss will soon get over it.
Accept that you only get 5 hours of sleep during the week, but come the weekend you will be able to sleep in all day.
Accept these stressors, and retrain the body to see these things as normal events in our life. And that the angry commuter honking his horn behind you isn’t a raging lion, but just some idiot with a stress problem.
If you liked this article, you might like the following pieces from Alex Fergus:
- Why We Need To Be Weirdos To Be Healthy
- Why A Lack Of Sleep Is Making You Fat
- How To Lose Weight In A Natural, Healthy Way
- How Disconnecting Improved My Relationship, Creativity and Sleep