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The stress response is an automatic response that has evolved as a protective mechanism for our very survival. It alerts us to a danger signal and prepares us to fight or run away. It has been referred to as the “fight or flight response”.
We are continually monitoring our environment for danger. We use all of our senses to do this: vision, smell, hearing, taste and touch. The sensory information is processed in the midbrain in area called the thalamus which communicates with the area around it called the limbic system.
The limbic system is a group of structures that form the emotional center of the brain. Therefore danger signals evoke an emotional response particularly the emotion of fear. A stimulus like tissue injury will be processed in the thalamus and relayed to the limbic system which can generate the emotion fear and the perception of pain. The emotion of fear can increase your perception of pain and make you more sensitive to painful touch stimuli.
The midbrain also contains the autonomic nervous system center, so this center is also activated with a stress response. The autonomic nervous system is composed of the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions. The sympathetic is the fight or flight division. Once activated it causes a neurological response in the body resulting in increased heart rate and respiration to prepare you to fight or run away. It results in the release of adrenaline which gives your muscles the power and energy they need.
Also located inside the midbrain are 2 glands called the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. These glands release hormones that travel between each other and to other distant glands located above the kidneys called the adrenal glands. These glands release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol has wide spread physiological effects on the body. The communication between these 3 glands is referred to as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). This axis is always activated during a stress response, but cortisol is also being released daily in a cyclical fashion. It is at the highest level in the morning to arouse us for the day and at the lowest level at night to prepare us to sleep. Chronic activation of the stress response can lead to dysregulation of this normal cycle.
Chronic stress with a chronic stress response will lead to chronic release of cortisol. Cortisol commands the release of sugar into the blood stream so there is energy to fight or run. If you do not use the sugar because your stress occurs from just sitting in traffic or at the office – the extra sugar will eventually get stored as belly fat. In addition, the increase sugar in your blood can influence blood pressure resulting in high blood pressure.
The stress response does not always cause excitation; in the intestine the opposite occurs. The stress response causes a reduction in the release of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid, in addition it slows gut motility. Digestion is not required when you are fighting or running away. This leads to digestive problems with poor or incomplete digestion resulting in a feeling of excessive fullness, bloating and gas. Poor digestion means less absorption of nutrients from the foods you eat and poor motility will result in constipation.
Chronic activation of a stress response is very energy demanding and eventually your immune system is affected because so many resources are consumed by the stress response. Your immune function is diminished and you are more susceptible to infection and disease.
If you feel that you have a lower capacity to deal with stress than others around you; there may be underlying reasons.
The term Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) refers to a range of events that a child can experience, which leads to stress and can result in trauma and chronic stress responses. Multiple, chronic or persistent stress can impact a child’s developing brain and has been linked in numerous studies to a variety of high-risk behaviors, chronic diseases and negative health outcomes in adulthood such as smoking, diabetes and heart disease.
Published in 1998 as collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente, the original ACE study was one of the first studies to look at the relationship between chronic stress in childhood and adult health outcomes. Data were collected between 1995-1997 from 17,000 Kaiser members who completed surveys on their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviors. There are many sources of childhood trauma and not all are included in the ACEs Questionnaire. ACEs are common and pervasive in our society. In the original ACE study of adults, 64% of adults reported at least one ACE. More than one in five reported three or more ACEs and 12.4% reported four or more ACEs.
You can complete an ACEs Questionnaire below. Follow up by completing the Resilence Questionnaire for your resilence score.
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Understand that the stress response is automatic and essential; we are never going to get rid of it. We need to both appreciate it and learn to manage it because it triggers a physiological cascade of body reactions that can be harmful in the long term.
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