Stress is a normal part of life — and even if feeling worried or overstretched isn't ideal, the human body is actually equipped to deal with — and adapt to — life stressors.
Stress, simply put, is your body's response to change, per the Cleveland Clinic. The point of stress is to help you adjust physically, emotionally and mentally to some new challenge, respond appropriately and avoid negative consequences or danger.
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For example, feeling stressed about an upcoming work conference can actually help you stay motivated and on top of the work that needs to be done.
However, feeling constantly stressed — or like your reaction to changes or challenges is extreme for the given situation — may point to an overactive stress response.
"The stress response is that way in which our minds and bodies respond to a perceived threat. It serves an evolutionary function in that it is designed to protect us and keep us safe," says Elena Touroni, psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.
"However, modern life means that this response can be generated in a variety of ways when there is no real threat to our survival — but our mind and body believes that there is," she adds.
But not all stress looks the same, says Touroni. Below, we'll talk about the three types of stress response — fight, flight and freeze — as well as how to cope and identify with a stress response and when to speak to your doctor about stress.
What Are the Stress Response Types?
There are three main ways people respond to stress, and in general, most people have an "innate response to stress, depending on their temperament and personality," Touroni says, though it is possible to experience other stress responses, depending on the situation.
However, the "goal" of each response is the same: to return the body to safety.
Your heart rate and blood pressure go up, and you may feel flushed or experience tenseness and trembling. The goal of "fight mode" is to jump in and get rid of the threat head-on.
"'Fight' shows up in modern humans as aggression, irritability [and] feeling punchy for no reason. Rarely does it show up as it was evolutionarily intended — as actual violence — but this can happen," says Dr. Gibson.
As with fight mode, "flight" involves another highly activated, sympathetic nervous system response. The instinct here is to run away from the threat.
"'Flight' shows up in modern humans as restlessness, scattered, racing minds and pacing bodies. In some cases, people might switch jobs and relationships and even move cities constantly," Dr. Gibson says.
Finally, there's the "freeze" stress response. Rather than a state of hyper-arousal, people who have a freeze response will enter a parasympathetic nervous system state — marked by low activation, numbness, disconnection and apathy. The goal with "freeze" is to "dissociate from our own bodies and not experience the full threat," says Dr. Gibson.
To better understand how a person might react to the same stressor in different ways, Touroni says to imagine an important deadline that will be vital to someone's career. Those in "fight" mode may try to "attack the situation by setting impossibly high standards for yourself, working overtime, staying up late at night, in an attempt to achieve the best possible result," says Touroni.
Meanwhile, someone in "flight" may try to avoid or "block" the work.
Finally, someone in "freeze" mode may enter a "blank" or burnout state, spending hours staring at the screen but unable to stay present enough to do the work.
What's important to understand in this scenario — and all scenarios that can activate a stress response — is that the body is triggered by real or perceived danger. Obviously, a work assignment isn't physically harmful, but often someone's past experiences and history of trauma can influence what the body and mind understand as a threat.
"Triggers can be reminders of painful past experiences — something like a person or place or smell will bring the memory back," Dr. Gibson says. "But sometimes, a trigger is an emotion or an anniversary. Or a characteristic in someone, like a manager, a client or a partner, that reminds you of another time. For others, triggers are preverbal or ancestral [trauma] and can't be traced in such a linear way."
How to Handle a Stress Response
Experiencing a stress response isn't a choice — it's an automatic, neurobiological response people can't turn on and off at will. But there are ways to learn how to better identify, cope with and de-escalate a stress response:
1. Noticing: This first step, says Dr. Gibson, is becoming more aware of what your body is telling your brain, and vice versa. This step is sometimes also called "befriending the nervous system" or "establishing safety." "The goal of this step is to study your own neurobiology and understand how your mind-body shows up in each of these three states," Dr. Gibson says. "While we all experience them, [we] aren't always familiar with it."
2. Shifting: The second step involves learning body-based (sometimes called somatic) and brain-based (sometimes called cognitive) tools to help shift and de-escalate the stress response. "It can be as simple as breathing, sipping water [and] mindfulness. Or it can be more sophisticated like Havening Techniques, EFT Tapping (self-acupressure) or a physiologic tremor (TRE)," says Dr. Gibson.
3. Resourcing or Reconnecting: This is about "learning how to have new responses in experiences that might have triggered in the past," Dr. Gibson says. "This is through mental flexibility — developing alternate pathways that can be options rather than 'stuck' reflexes of stress states."
It can take a lot of work to learn to manage a stress response in a gentle, productive manner. Often, people feel ashamed about their responses, even though they are a completely normal part of being human.
Most importantly, you don't have to hide or try to manage stress on your own — you can always seek the help of a mental health professional and therapist (more on this below).
When to Seek Professional Help
The fight, flight or freeze stress response was not meant to be a chronic state of being. If you are struggling with long-term feelings of hyperarousal (like fight and flight) or hypoarousal (like freeze), consider getting in touch with a therapist, mental health professional or doctor for support.
If stress is beginning to interfere in your day-to-day life and you have trouble sleeping, concentrating, thinking clearly or are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, you should speak with your doctor, Touroni says.
Fight, flight and freeze are understandable, normal responses to emotion or physical threats — and these responses represent our own natural way of trying to protect ourselves, Touroni says.
"[Coping] is simply about learning how to regulate this response and intervene, so that you have more choice around how you manage the situation," she says.
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