Stress spirals

Human beings are designed to respond to threats. Our bodies, thoughts and feelings mobilise automatically to help us take action to meet the challenge. Problems can arise when there is no effective action to take, or when the stress response system becomes overloaded.

Fight or flight

Human bodies and minds are programmed through evolution to respond to threatening or challenging situations with a ‘fight or flight’ stress response. This response gets the body ready for action, by increasing the heartbeat and blood pressure and releasing hormones like adrenaline, for example.

Stress response

The stress response consists of a physiological response (increased heartbeat, mobilising hormones etc), a psychological response (thoughts and feelings), and a behavioural response (what we do). The sensations, thoughts and feelings associated with being under threat are unpleasant and help to motivate us to do something to reduce the threat.

This is a very useful response when the threat or challenge is short-lived and practical – eg. running a race or sitting an exam – because it helps us direct all our energy at delivering a peak performance. However, it is not such a useful response if the threat doesn’t pass or can’t be managed through an immediate practical action.

Stress in modern life

Running away is an effective response to the threat of being eaten by a lion. It is less effective when the ‘threat’ is our fear of failure, and it is not an option in many other uncomfortable situations (eg sitting in a crowded train carriage).

Many of the challenges we face in modern life aren’t simple or practical ones. And many of the ways in which we habitually try to manage stress – like drinking alcohol – aren’t very helpful or effective in dealing with the problems we face.

Often, in the face of modern ‘threats’ the stress response doesn’t help us effectively manage the problem – instead of mobilising energy towards taking effective action, we ‘spin our wheels’ with increasingly stressed out thoughts and feelings (‘This is awful. I feel awful’). We understandably want to avoid feeling like this and find ourselves putting our heads in the sand to try to ignore the problem.

Stress overdrive

When our stress response is repeatedly mobilised but the threat isn’t effectively dealt with the system can go into overdrive or become overloaded. We can find ourselves slipping into more chronic spirals of anxiety and anger, or low mood and depression. See ‘The depression habit spiral’

Next: The depression habit spiral

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