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'FIGHT OR FLIGHT' DOESN'T WORK WHEN STRESS IS PROLONGED
Prolonged stress affects the whole body, and often causes people to engage in unhealthy behaviors

Date published: 10/19/2008

I experienced an acute stress reaction recently when I was pulled over for speeding.

As soon as I saw that flashing blue light, my pulse was racing, my heart was pounding, my breathing was heavy, I was pale and sweaty, my stomach was tightening up and I was shaking.

I was experiencing the classic "fight or flight" reaction--set in motion when your senses alert your brain to something fearful. This reaction activates your whole sympathetic nervous system and your adrenal glands, which start producing large amounts of adrenalin and cortisol. In turn, this raises your blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate, and redirects blood to your vital organs (muscles, brain, heart, lungs).

The stress reaction focuses your attention and vision, so that you appear agitated, or sometimes almost in a daze. It may loosen your sphincters and cause diarrhea. It makes you pale, sweaty, and stands your hair on end--the classic picture of someone who's just seen a ghost, or a cop.

MODERN-DAY STRESS

The problem is, our sympathetic nervous systems are stuck in the Stone Age. Programmed to protect ourselves from imminent threats, we want to either fight or run away from our aggressors.

But in these supposedly civilized times, the things that stress us out aren't usually things we can run away from or fight off.

Our stressors are more likely to be a crashing stock market, a parent with Alzheimer's or a hateful job rather than a saber tooth tiger.

We may still want to enact physical violence--against our boss or a politician, for example. (A coffee mug I saw once defined stress as "the confusion created when one's mind overrides the body's basic desire to choke the hell out of someone who desperately deserves it.")

But fighting is usually not appropriate.

So what happens is these low-key, more prolonged stresses wind up your cardiovascular system and cause high blood pressure and heart disease. And very often, the effects are on all sorts of other parts of our bodies as well.

When you're in a chronic state of stress, your immune system is suppressed, making you more susceptible to infections. Wounds don't heal so well. Your sexual function is impaired. Your gastrointestinal system is messed up, causing heartburn, diarrhea or constipation. The circuitry of your brain actually gets changed, and you develop poor memory, poor attention and emotional changes.


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