The stress response is often referred to as “fight or flight” because the changes that take place within the body are designed to prepare the person to perform those activities to the best of their physical and mental capacities. The sympathetic nervous system protects from perceived (or imagined) threat by initiating bodily changes that redirect energy to organs and muscle groups that are most beneficial from a survival standpoint (those needed to fight harder, run faster, see better, and breathe easier). Meanwhile, it diverts energy away from less immediately important functions (such as digestion and saliva production) to focus on your survival needs, leading people to feel “worried sick,” have “butterflies in the stomach,” or describe their stomach as “tied up in knots.”
These changes are adaptive and beneficial when faced with real-life threats such as fighting off a wild animal or running away from the site of a natural disaster. You don’t want to waste energy digesting your sandwich when you’re in a life or death situation. However, when they occur in response to anxious thoughts and feelings, a racing heart, sweaty palms, and stomach ache are more likely to be misconstrued as signs of impending doom than as survival mechanisms. Panic attacks occur as a result of misinterpretation of these bodily sensations, which are then worsened by fear-inducing thoughts such as “I’m losing my mind,” “I can’t handle this,” and “there’s something wrong with me” (a vicious cycle).
The sympathetic nervous system is also activated by more enjoyable, exciting forms of stress, such as those associated with the “adrenaline rush” of roller coasters, skiing, flirting, and other high risk or thrilling activities. Regardless of whether that stress is perceived to be good or bad, fast-acting (but relatively short-lasting) stress hormones such as adrenaline and slower-acting (but longer-lasting) stress hormones known as glucocorticoids (such as cortisol) are released in response to stress. In moderation, stress can exhilarate, motivate, and give us the edge we need to successfully meet the challenges we face in life; in excess, it can lead to devastating effects on health, personality, and mood.
Unlike other animals, humans have the potential to dwell on anxiety-producing thoughts and feelings to the extent that we often chronically activate and overwhelm a stress response system that is only designed to overcome intermittent, short-term threats. More persistent states of stress are associated with excessive release of cortisol and other glucocorticoids that reduce immune functioning and increase the risk of health-related consequences. While occasional and short-lived stressors are well-tolerated and, in many ways, beneficial, activation of the “rest and digest” system known as the parasympathetic nervous system is essential for balancing out the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system and for facilitating sufficient relaxation, healing, and effective bodily processes over time.
Activities that emphasize and connect with deep breathing, such as yoga, mindfulness, and tai chi help to counteract this imbalance by activating the parasympathetic branch, thereby promoting relaxation, restoration, and optimal functioning. By encouraging practitioners to breathe through their experiences and to accept whatever sensations, thoughts, and feelings that may arise, these activities also promote increased tolerance of discomfort, which can generalize to other difficult physical sensations and overwhelming emotional states. Practitioners learn to notice their sensations rather than overreacting to them or rushing to alter them; in doing so, panic attacks are much less likely to occur, and mental clarity and peace are much more achievable.
Addressing underlying issues that lead to rumination, worry, and anxiety and developing effective coping skills can also help manage and relieve stress and promote long-term positive health outcomes. As humans, we have more opportunities to activate our stress responses through chronic worry and anxiety, but we also have the ability to understand our triggers and responses and to deliberately engage in behaviors that counterbalance the effects of stress. A daily practice of deep breathing (check out this article for ideas) combined with other introspective and expressive activities can go a long way in effectively managing stress and maximizing health and wellbeing.