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Stress isn’t just an emotional experience — it’s a physiological process. Whether you’re nervously preparing to give a presentation at work or having a full-on panic attack on a plane, the physical symptoms that come with stress can range from inconvenient to totally overwhelming, especially when the body’s defensive reaction feels out of proportion to the stressor.
The stress response — also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response — is the nervous system’s way of ensuring a person survives danger. The process begins when the brain perceives a threat through the five senses. For example, if you hear someone scream, your amygdala (basically, the brain’s security system) sends a message to the hypothalamus, the brain’s command center. The hypothalamus then triggers a cascade of hormones that cue the body to fend off the threat. This is when the physical symptoms of stress start to kick in.
The fight and flight responses usually involve a process of ramping up to get moving — think a racing heartbeat, faster breathing, and tingling extremities, all of which contribute to the urge to physically fight or run. In the freeze response, panic can cause feelings of being paralyzed or numb.
Emotional stressors like a confrontational boss, a needy friend, or even a traffic jam can come with out-of-proportion physical reactions, which aren’t exactly conducive to life’s demands.
These automatic, physical reactions don’t feel great, but the fight, flight, and freeze responses are pretty advanced survival mechanisms — profuse sweating is believed to make people slippery so predators can’t catch them, and the racing heartbeat is meant to maximize oxygen supply to keep people on alert in the face of danger.
Thousands of years ago, these autonomic responses would have come in handy for fending off a sabertooth tiger or a warrior from a rival village. But modern threats aren’t always physical. Emotional stressors like a confrontational boss, a needy friend, or even a traffic jam can come with out-of-proportion physical reactions, which aren’t exactly conducive to life’s demands.
“If there’s an actual, physical threat, the symptoms make sense, but if you’re not actually going to start running, you don’t need the racing heart,” says psychologist Lynn Bufka, the associate executive director for practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association. “It’s really evolutionarily a mismatch between how we are hardwired to respond and where the threats are now.”
Thankfully, humans are not totally at the mercy of the body’s big, defensive responses. That’s where the parasympathetic nervous system comes in — the process that hits the brakes on all the physiological components of the fight, flight, or freeze responses. Normally, Bufka says, the body reaches homeostasis on its own, usually within 10 or 15 minutes of the threat passing.
But if you’re freaking out on a flight or sweating through a shirt in the conference room, the time it takes to return to baseline can feel like an eternity. “Having that kind of response to a situation that doesn’t require a physical response is at a minimum uncomfortable or distracting, to really kind of scary — it can lead to a ‘what’s wrong with me?’ kind of situation,” says Bufka.
When it comes to managing the effects of acute stress on the body, Natalie Dattilo, the director of psychology services at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says there’s good news and bad news: While we can’t short-circuit our physiology and avoid it altogether, there are a few ways to mitigate and manage it.
Use your breath
When talking yourself out of a panicked state isn’t working, use your body instead. Dattilo says the body sends messages to the brain through the rate and quality of breath, so calmly breathing during the fight, flight, or freeze response can play a huge role in how long it lasts. While sharp and frequent inhales have an activating effect — meaning they’ll keep the body in “go” mode — exhales calm the body, triggering a “rest and digest” state. In times of high stress, concentrating on breathing out can help the body relax.
Practice when you’re not upset
In the midst of an overwhelming physical reaction, it can be hard to muster the wherewithal to calm down. That’s why preparing the mind and body ahead of time is so important. Bufka says incorporating meditation and mindfulness practices into a daily routine can do wonders in training the body to get to a calmer state. “If a person is prone to having a physiological reaction to stress, practicing that calm breathing when they’re not stressed is important because in the moment of stress, it can become just as habitual as the fight, flight, or freeze response,” she says. “You’re just setting up your physiology to be a bit less reactive.”
Since most stressors today are social or emotional, rather than physical, the body is often left with stressful energy long after the perceived threat dissipates.
“During a stress response, everything in your body is prepared to run. And you know what we do? We sit, which can bring a counterproductive, toxic backlog of energy,” Dattilo says. While it may feel strange to get your heart rate up when you’re already amped, she says short bursts of exercise like running up and down a few flights of stairs, doing pushups or situps, or doing jumping jacks can help move that excess energy out of the body by triggering the rest-and-digest response.
Tell yourself “you’ve got this”
Out-of-proportion, physiological responses are often triggered by faulty perceptions. “We experience stress when the perceived demands of the situation outweigh our perceived resources,” Dattilo says.
Instead of focusing on how helpless you feel during stress, Dattilo recommends thinking of an instance when you’ve managed to overcome something difficult or overwhelming. Calling to mind times of resilience will offer a reminder that you have the resources to manage whatever is happening now — and even if you don’t, you can ask for help.
“The situation you’re experiencing as a threat may not actually be a threat, and you actually have more resources at your disposal than you first thought — or the demands aren’t actually as great as you initially perceived them to be,” Dattilo says.
Reframe the physical response
Physical engagement can cue the body to turn off the stress response, but Bufka says the way people think also feeds into behavior and physiology. “If you’re thinking about how terrible it is that you’re sweating before a big speech, that’s not going to help you feel less stressed,” she says.
Rather than fixating on how scary the physical symptoms are, keep in mind that what’s happening is a totally normal physical process that will eventually end. “It can be helpful to remind yourself that these sensations might be uncomfortable, but they won’t kill you. You’ve had them before, and you can deal with it,” Bufka says.
And for anyone struggling with chronic stress, anxiety, or panic attacks, Bufka says it’s important to seek professional help. Talking to a therapist or doctor is the best way to manage emotions and physical responses that come with them.