What is the Stress Response?
You’ve probably heard of the stress response, and maybe even have some awareness of what it feels like in your body when it starts to happen to you. For me, recently I have been triggered into the stress response when I feel overwhelmed with trying to run my business, here is a brief description of my experience of the stress response:
I could feel myself freezing again, full of worry, self doubt, imposter syndrome. I reached for my phone and started scrolling endlessly until I felt some of that heaviness lift away. The worst part about it is that I am totally aware that this feeling isn't a relief. It is numbness. But this is what I do every time I start to feel overwhelmed; it’s easy and it works.
My experience of the stress response is an example of Freeze, which is one of four different stress responses that our body will produce.
A stressor is something that causes strain or tension, and can be found in the environment OR can be created in our own brains. Evolutionarily speaking, stressors were originally environmental and related to survival- predators, enemies, hunting, weather, etc… Now, we tend to create most of our stressors. It can be a reaction to an email or a text message, maybe preparing to give a speech or even trying to find the words to post on social media. None of this actually has to do with survival, but our brains still think that they do and so it sends the signal to our bodies to respond in the same way it would to an actual threat.
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The stress response is when the body will produce more chemicals that will help us survive, turn on certain systems, and turn off others, all based around the focus of survival. I won’t go into all of the biology of it, but broken down very simply, here is what you need to know:
The brain releases chemicals that will give us a boost of energy, in case we need to run away or fight.
Our body shuts down the “rest and digest” functions of the nervous system, so digestion is at a halt to allow blood to flow to other more important parts of the body, temporarily.
All the energy and power goes into the system that allows us to maintain acute focus with our senses, to use the energy in our muscles.
The body is now prepared to enter into 1 of 4 responses - Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn.
Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn
Of the four Stress Responses, you probably have a default that you go to for most situations. This was learned in early childhood, depending on the home environment or what was taught to you. It probably wasn’t a conscious choice, but more so based on what your intuitive body interpreted as safest at the time.
The fight response is exactly what it sounds like. This response is aggressive and prepared to fight off any predators. The person who experiences the Fight Response might start to feel hot all over the body. You stop feeling pain as much because your body is masking it and sending signals to the stronger parts of the body. In fight mode, you will feel more defensive, literally ready to fight at any moment.
Again, not a creative name. The Flight response is about taking flight - running away. Similar to Fight, this response will direct attention away from pain and toward the ability to run. You might feel restless like you need to jump out of your skin. You may get tunnel vision and actually feel your senses less.
As I explained above, this tends to be my experience. Freeze mode is a state of no action. This isn’t a state of weakness though, don't’ be fooled. Think of the opossum that plays dead in order to trick a predator into not eating it. Freeze in humans may happen because we know that we can’t fight or run from whatever it is that is stressing us - your boss, your job, your family. Sometimes we can’t leave. The brain might get overwhelmed with the inability to take action, and eventually chooses to numb instead.
This is a newer Stress response. This response may come up because the other 3 don’t work. When you find yourself in a situation that you can’t run from, you can’t fight, and you can’t tune out, the last resort may be to “join in,” so to speak. To try and “be good enough
” in order to get to the end of the stressor as soon as possible. To Fawn is to People Please, in many ways.
You may have one Go-To stress response, or you may shift between two or more of them. Sometimes it depends on the stressor.
How the stress response can lead to anxiety
When we get stuck in the stress responses - meaning, in today’s world we are constantly bombarded by stressors - it can start to be detrimental to our mental wellbeing. Remember above how I said that certain systems shut down when the stress response turns on? That’s fine and necessary in the short term. But long term, it starts to create more problems than solutions. We get stuck in survival mode, we develop chronic pain, digestive issues, or any number of other health concerns.
When we are stuck in survival mode, we can’ thrive. We can’t focus on anything other than surviving, because all other parts of life depend on survival. If our brains don’t believe that we can survive the night, it doesn’t give a damn if we can find a romantic partner, or if we sleep well, or if our clothes fit right.
When we are focused solely on survival, we start to experience anxiety- a constant state of worry. In these cases, it is easy to see how stress and anxiety can look and feel very similar. Sometimes they are intertwined in this way.
When stuck in survival mode, you may constantly feel like you are under pressure, never being able to catch up and never being able to relax.
So what can you do?
How do you get out of Fight Flight Freeze or Fawn?
There are a lot of ways to do this. I suggest trying several, and finding the ones that feel good and work for you. Some ideas are daily practices and some of them are what you can do in the moment.
Daily Practices to train the nervous system and stay out of Stress Response
Meditate. This is a great daily practice to get used to just sitting in stillness. Start out small, just sit for 3-5 minutes each day as you learn to get used to it. If you are feeling really anxious and restless, this will be really uncomfortable. That’s ok, try it anyway.
Physical Exercise. Do something to lean into those feelings of needing to move. Go to a boxing gym if you’re feeling aggressive, or go to your bedroom and beat the sheet out of your pillow (did you see what I did?). This is also a really good option for more in the moment stress responses as well.
Journal. Write about what you are feeling. Sometimes when we get it out of our heads, it helps us to see that it isn’t as big as we thought.
Play. Create time and space to just have fun. Think about when you were younger, what did you love to do? Draw? Paint? Play with trucks or dolls? Seriously! It can feel silly but play is so important to our ability to thrive as adults.
Interrupt the Stress Response in the Moment
Opposite Action - take an action that is the opposite of what you normally want to do. When I go into Freeze Response, my Opposite Action would be to do something active instead, like going for a walk, doing yoga, dancing, anything that will keep me from Freeze.
Cold Rush - Hold on to some ice cubes as long as possible, or splash your face with cold water. If you are in a cold climate, you could even step outside for a few moments. This works to “refocus” your nervous system and helps to train it to handle stress in a new way.
Scream into the void - Not the actual void, but scream into a pillow. This works really well in Fight mode in particular. It is a way to let out the anger and frustration, without scaring the neighbor's dog.
High Intensity Movement - Do some jumping jacks, shake your body, run in place… Anything to help the surge of adrenaline pass through your system so that you can settle.
Go to sleep - Seriously! Sometimes, the emotion or the stress is so intense that going to sleep might be the only thing that we can handle. That’s ok. Sleep is good for the body to regenerate and heal, which might be exactly what you need at that moment.
Sometimes, we have to move through the feeling and the stress response and that’s all there is to it. Building daily habits that will help you to regulate stress is key to making sure that the response isn’t so strong, and doesn’t keep you locked in survival mode.
Kaylin is a licensed therapist in Orange County, California and creator of intentional living for the chaotic mind. She specializes in helping women business owners work through the stress and anxiety of the first few years of business so that they can focus on embodying their version of success.
With an online and totally virtual practice, Kaylin is able to provide therapy to anyone in the state of California, and can coach individuals located anywhere.