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Your brain, stress and fight or flight

Even when times are good, stress isn’t something we can ever completely avoid.

We all experience stress sometimes, and many of us are dealing with it right now. After all, it’s a 100% normal reaction, especially during the difficult times we’re all living through with COVID-19. And while we often think of stress as a bug in the system, it’s actually a feature—the stress response evolved to prepare the body to survive.

Imagine it’s prehistoric times, you’ve left the cozy confines of your cave and you’re out hunting. With just your trusty club to defend yourself, you encounter some sort of a scary, prehistoric cross between a woolly mammoth and a sabertooth tiger. There are only two options. Stand and fight…or run.

This is quite aptly known as the fight or flight reflex. In the throes of it, your heart and breathing speed up, blood rushes to your muscles to charge them with glucose for energy, and you become more alert. And all of it happens to help you come out on the other side of this dangerous encounter with the woolly toothed tiger alive and well.

And this reaction is still (for the most part) helpful, today, even though the woolly-toothed tiger no longer roams the earth in search of tasty human snacks (and didn't ever, in reality). Fight or flight energy is what keeps you on your toes for an important call or has you sprinting to the finish line in the race against an important deadline. In the right circumstances, it’s good stress (yes, there is such a thing).

On the other hand, sometimes this reaction pops up in situations that we can’t change or in reaction to circumstances we have little-to-no-influence on (like a global pandemic) and it doesn’t do us much good.

It can be especially toxic to our moods and even our physical health when it becomes long-term or chronic.

Most of us have a finger on precisely what we think is triggering our stress (mortgages, performance reviews, keeping bored children entertained, contagion), but what exactly is the role of our brains when it comes to stress?

Here’s what we know so far:

@all_who_wander via Unsplash

Fight or flight is a mammal (not just a human) thing.

At the centre of the stress response is a small structure called the amygdala. This tiny thing, dubbed the "fear center", triggers a cascade of events (inside our bodies) that prepare our minds and bodies to face up to (or flee) conflict.

And the amygdala torments more than just humans—all mammals have one—it’s part of the limbic system, an ancient, evolutionary apparatus that processes our basic emotions and memories.

Cortisol keeps stress coming

When the amygdala is activated, the stress response is communicated to the rest of the body via the stress hormone cortisol. Fortunately, although it’s impossible to circumvent fight or flight entirely, exercise is an excellent shortcut to calm—it helps lower your levels of cortisol so that you can feel composed sooner.

Good stress is a real thing

Stress isn’t all bad, though. It affects the brain in different ways—in fact, some pressure helps us become more resilient by rewiring the brain in advantageous ways. A particularly useful type of stress is the sort we feel when we’re excited and hopeful.

Curiously, excitement triggers our flight or fight response but manages to do it without bad stress’ requisite dose of fear and anxiety.

We can make bad stress into good

It may sound strange, but we can change the way we think about stress so that "bad stress" becomes less harmful. Just like we train our bodies with physical exercise, we can train our minds to deal with stress. By reminding ourselves of the good things in life through positive thinking activities, we can check our thinking and learn to think differently about situations.

Another way to keep bad stress at bay is by breaking down challenges into more manageable chunks, so they don’t seem so overwhelming. And finally, the best way to keep stress in check even in uncertain times is by incorporating switching off and caring for our minds and bodies into our daily routines.

Do you notice your brain switching into fight or flight mode often? What are some ways you deal with daily stress? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com.