Stress & Fight Or Flight Mode
It's not just a condition, it's actually our main opponent.
Most people know that stress is generally considered to be unhealthy. Some researchers have recognized that stressing about stress is also unhealthy and are trying to change the way people think about stress itself. As in a paper named
Yet every paper that tries to say stress is good will uniformly either say "some stress," "reasonable levels of stress" or "reasonable challenges" are good for you and that's true. The problem is the definition change to "a reasonable challenge."
First let's look at the definition of stress:
"Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure." -https://www.mentalhealth.org
There is no "healthy amount of overwhelm." Challenge is healthy and actually the only path forward. But too much challenge becomes stress, which we need to begin to see as a check engine light and take action.
What exactly happens when we feel stress? The answer is more complex, intimidating and nefarious than you may have ever expected. Simply put, our bodies come with an outdated computer like program called 'fight or flight mode' that was designed to help us survive times of serious threat to our well being and lives. Generally the following occurs:
Blood is sent to our arms and legs to better support our ability to fight or run like mad. (Hence fight or flight)
Our adrenaline is kicked on to help with strength and focus on that which threatens us, so that we may cease to worry about anything else, including our own pain.
All other systems shut down in our body, including digestion, healing, cognitive function, ability to communicate effectively etc.
The problem is that this mode will kick on when stressed about our loved one, our own weight, bills etc. Additionally a single moment of stress can initiate fight or flight mode for up to 72 hours, possibly since this may have been how long we used to be hunted in the sabre-tooth tiger days. If you thought it was hard to loose weight before, try it with digestion completely turned down. If you thought it was hard to build muscle before, try doing it without the ability to heal (Which is when our muscles grow). If you thought it was hard to communicate with your loved one, try it without the ability to think, with additional pressure from this same system to turn to aggression, finger pointing, blame and anger.
There is literally no corner in our world that stress has not inflamed.
We literally can no longer afford to allow stress to secretly sabotage our self improvement, relationships and groups. The good news is that there is a solution that we can employ on an individual and societal level.
(Excerpt form our upcoming book)
“It’s not our fault.”
It's not our fault that our relationships have been struggling. It's not our fault that our health has been getting worse and worse with every passing year. It’s not our fault that we have been falling out of love with our children, family and close friends. It's not our fault that our battle for life itself and keeping our heads above water seems to become less and less possible. There has been an actual and hidden reason all along…
The thesis of this book is that the stress response system is largely at fault or multiplying everything that we dislike with ourselves and even the world at large. I agree that sounds like a wild claim but if you take a deeper look into the actual effects of ‘the stress response system,’ to be precise, then you can begin to see how its effects can harm other actions when attempted ‘with it stuck on.’
There are literally no limits to how much damage can be done, and without considering lost opportunities, production, inventions and so on.
A single moment of stress is far more than it appears to be. An explosion of actions ignites within our bodies and minds, and generally in proportion to the real or perceived threats at hand. Right or wrong, our bodies essentially sound the drums of war along with our heartbeat.
Some Powerful Positive Effects Are:
Over 1,400 chemical and biological actions go into effect in the attempt to help us survive short term threats to our survival
Blood and energy are sent to our extremities to help us physically attack (‘fight’) what triggered us or run (‘flight’) from it like mad.
Adrenaline is pumped through our body to further increase muscular strength and pain tolerance.
Our breathing quickens to keep up with new energy needs.
Our focus on the threat at hand, multiplies.
Unfortunately, this system tends to perpetuate itself, causing lesser actions to ‘trigger us’ more and more, resulting in this system getting ‘stuck in the on position.’
The amount of damage these following traits can cause us individually and on a larger scale is beyond any means of calculation. Even if we united every super-computer in the world, they could never completely measure the direct and indirect damages of the following to our lives.
These drawbacks also seem to take hold in proportion to the amount of stress perceived, real or imagined:
All healing, body and mind turns off. (Resulting in, accelerating age, chronic tension and pain, illness, injury, osteoporosis, arthritis, depression etc.)
All other systems in the body, besides the ability to fight or flight, are powered down because of the exorbitant energy costs of this system, including the ability to love.
Our bodies ability to heal thus shuts down and all diseases then become more likely to be prolonged, accelerated or even directly brought about, including fatigue and the ‘disease of age.’
Our ever-vital immune system becomes suppressed and compromised, opening the door to future diseases, and weakening ability to fight anything we already have.
Over time, inflammation levels greatly increase which then markedly worsens our health. It can also weaken our tendons and ligaments and thus further predispose us to injury and lessen our ability to work, move, live and fight for a better future.
Countless researchers and doctors now point directly to long term stress as a direct cause to a multitude of health conditions. Long term stress poisons our mood, behavior, health, longevity and destroys our ability to think, work and thus succeed.
It demands we stress and worry and that stress takes 10 times more energy than high intensity CrossFit! It's not that we're lazy or we don't want to improve conditions in our world, it's that we literally have already spent all the energy we had on stress itself.
Digestion shuts off. (Resulting in weight gain, lethargy, malnourishment etc.)
Digestion shuts off while our body decides to hold onto as many calories as possible, uncertain when the next meal may be. Weight loss programs then become impossible.
Reasoning & Logic turn off. (Resulting in lessened brain activity, decreased ability to understand data we don’t already believe to be true, cultism, bigotry, war…)
We become hyper focused on the thing that caused us stress whether a real or imagined problem. In combat, we become overly focused on trying to land our punch or our attack while becoming blind to the enemies’ counterattack, leading to getting hit by our opponents attacks out of our narrowed vision. Anything other than these singular points of intense fear and anger are considered to be irrelevant or even outright lies, regardless of what’s observably apparent to others.
Our ability to learn and reason diminishes and with it, our ability to succeed and overcome cognitive challenges to our survival. Unfortunately, the less intelligent we become, the more intelligent we think we are as we’ll get into later as per the ‘Dunning Kreuger effect.’ This becomes highly dangerous when mixed with the cognitive decline effects of stress.
Since our brains believe our life is in danger, we will obsess over anything that we assume could affect our survival or image (required for survival) in any way. Perceived threats to our image are felt with equal fear and anger to potential death. This mental state then takes precious focus and will power away from those things we wish we could better foster and had energy for. (E.g. we wish we had the energy to exercise but spent it trying to digest more junk food that we tossed into our bodies.) This mental tear in focus is also known as a destructive form of multitasking called ‘goal shifting’ where we have so much on our minds that we can no longer focus on any one thing. Our effectiveness and efficiency fall through the floor, if not becoming a liability.
With split focus and lowered cognitive abilities we become far more likely to make mistakes, which then leads to more stress, guilt, anger and repercussions, not to mention actual damage and liability our actions can cause. It’s like when they say, “The path to hell is carved with good intentions.” I say good intentions + stress = path to hell. It’s also impossible to recognize the damage our ‘good intentions’ or 'voiced concerns’ may be causing when stressed. This is when our ‘activism’ can end up harming others or when our own casual complaints of the world can become a factor in the downfall of our loved ones.
We become desperate for energy and seek out food high in fat, sugar and caffeine in the hopes of it helping to raise our spirits, yet they will drastically do the opposite over time.
We begin to seek out ‘more accepting faces’ to call home. Weather it’s a “new family” that agrees with all of our frustrations or even a new lover who ‘appears to only smile and “never nags."
With reduced cognitive abilities we become heavily resistant to ideas and entities we don’t already believe and trust. Any existing fear, alienation or division then becomes multiplied. We then become more likely to take on cultish bubble-like ideologies and even passionately resent others with dissimilar viewpoints. Sometimes anger is justified, fight or flight simply puts anger on steroids and blurs our lines between good and bad.
In order to help us survive, what I call ‘painful self-preservation’ turns on. Our minds become worried about our longevity and safety, which includes our image to others and perceived mate-ability. To an outsider, this looks like selfishness. In my opinion, men seem to become more concerned with their image and ‘legacy’ while women seem to become more concerned with how they look (mate-ability) and worthiness. I call this painful self-preservation because this is also when our minds try to warn us of threats of the future that end up becoming endless self-judgment and resulting shame or anger. We then use up all of our patience from our own self attacks, having nothing left for actual criticism from others and especially not from the other side.
“Hey, it really bothers me when you do X…”
“WHAT?! NOW IM A HORRIBLE X MONSTER?! AND YOU DO ‘YDPOFSKJHDSFH’!!”
“Hey that’s not what I meant, why do you take things so personally?”
“Because I’m kicking my own ass already! Do ya mind?!!”
Our minds will work hard to figure out what the next Tiger could be. It will try to figure out all of our weaknesses or dangers to survival or even mate-ability. This is when it begins to remind us on a daily or hourly basis all of our insecurities, fears, guilt and generally every area that we feel lacking in, whether or not we’re ready to admit it. Its goal seems to be to try to motivate us to overcome these things but in its incessant reminders it only pushes us deeper into depression, anxiety, worry and inaction over the very things that require peaceful action.
A mind that's racing to the ‘drums of war’ will never be able to truly focus, study or listen. It will never stop and say things like, “Oh hey, by the way, you're awesome!” It will never be like, “Don’t worry about that small mistake, you’re an amazing person that others love to be around!” It will only be worrying about concerns, plans and ‘what am I forgetting.’ It will too quickly turn into endless doubt, worry, guilt, anger and so on AND with lessoning willpower to deal with those things that hurt, stress or anger us.
Memory shuts off. (Resulting in foggy minds, text anxiety, memory issues, etc.)
Memory completely turns off when the body is stressed. Reducing effectiveness on time spent studying and with additional reduced success with tests or for anything in life that requires memory. “Did we leave the stove on? I was a bit stressed and rushed when we left the house!”
Positivity becomes impossible. (Removing the ability to enjoy the small things, enjoy proximity with our loved ones, recognize good deeds done by others, etc.)
We become highly agitated and far more likely to lash out and be aggressive. Listening requires patience that no longer exists. We thus become more likely to feel multiplied levels of anger than what may be justified by what we face, which is unfortunate because there’s already plenty in this world to piss us off.
We slowly experience a feeling of burnout and depression, thus losing the will, passion, energy and interest to care and, potentially, remain a part of the living.
Our minds are put into a sort of ‘sentry mode where’ they will become completely consumed by negative data, dangers, fears, potential risks to survival and no matter how far-fetched or how far in the future it could happen, they become our entire world.
Positivity at best becomes unnoticed or undervalued to nonexistence. But more likely, positivity itself, including talk about positive stuff, songs, ideas. Possibly even this book. Anything that tries to point upward is either seen as trivial, fake or the enemy. Others attempts at positivity can then also become additional things that piss us off despite their best efforts.
Reproduction turns off. (Resulting in reproductive problems, pregnancy risks and complications, etc.)
With all of our systems shut down in our predisposition to illness, disease and injury, combined with challenged digestion and increased inflammation, our ability to make love, fertilize, carry a child to term and even parent afterward, all become highly challenged and dangerous at best. Most fathers know that their primary job, when wife is pregnant, is being willing to turn mountains upside down in the effort to help them relax with random errands or belly and back rubs, but will find their energy and will absent.
Nervous system shuts down, becomes hyper facilitated. (Resulting in hyper sensitivities, loss of balance/MDDS, Hyper chronic pain, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s and so much more)
Our nervous system is the system within our body that is both in charge of perceiving the world around us as well as carrying out the commands to make our organs and muscles move. Our nerves act a lot like people, and the more stress they become subject to, the more they are going to exaggerate input. This is why, when we are stressed, we can’t handle loud noises since our nerves will report it as being ten times louder than it actually is, making it cause pain. When our nerves are stressed, they simply don’t carry signals that well, and although they may try to help make our body move in dangerous situations, our reaction time is going to fall greatly. And generally, we’re more likely to become focused on something that we think is the danger while we get hit by the real one. It’s like a racist staring at a black person while getting ran over by a car.
In today's society, fight or flight is literally killing us and sending us down wrong or misleading paths for it gives us the impressive power to be right in a wrong way.
It’s accelerating our age, making us sicker, angrier, more miserable and depressed, making us weaker and dumber to the point where we become more susceptible to pandemics, disasters and even war.
The direct economic damage chronic stress costs us in our lives and to our country is truly staggering.
We’ve all experienced the power of stress and it’s power behind the saying, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself. For it will paralyze you in the face of your foe.” The idea of then ‘overcoming stress’ itself may sound like a long shot but then why do some people become stressed by small environmental factors while others may only experience high levels of stress from larger-than-life situations?
On top of the enigmas above, stress impairs our cognitive reasoning and brain function while making us more susceptible to mistakes, accidents and disease, which then leads to more stress and so the spiral begins.
On top of that and as mentioned above, is our tendency to believe that we are becoming smarter and smarter when we become less intelligent. And when we actually become smarter, we realize how much more we need to learn. This is known as the ‘Dunning-Kruger’ effect and why hiring someone on confidence alone can be a surefire way to destroy an industry.
Thus basically, as time goes on we tend to hold onto whatever “truths” we were taught with more and more ferocity as our health and intelligence declines while we think we’re getting smarter and smarter than everyone else as we laugh, sit back and point our finger while our house is consumed by fire. I actually removed a typo at the end of that last sentence that I found humorous but for the sake of professionalism I took it out… then wrote three sentences about a one letter typo that used to be there. Good thing you didn’t see the typo!
Name any condition or societal statistic and you’ll find stress directly causing it or multiplying the negative effects like TNT to a fire.
And unfortunately, when we are stressed, our brains have to conserve as much energy as possible and pushes us into inactivity over the very things that we stress about in order to “conserve energy” for when we need to engage in “the upcoming war,” its why we can sit there feeling guilty for not exercising… as we continue to not exercise. Or feel guilty for eating junk food before we make the trip to pick up some more.
To see this system in action we only have to look around us.
Imagine a wife trying to get through to her husband. But his own stress response system has shut off his ability to comprehend new concepts. His ability to listen is gone. His ability to notice the positive things of himself and his wife are gone. He’s not drifting away because he no longer loves her, he’s drifting away because he’s drowning in his own stress! She fears their relationship is dying. So, her brain helps to initiate ‘fight or flight’ mode. She gains incredible strength and volume but loses the ability to listen herself. Both of their abilities to listen and understand each other disappear. She thinks what they need is more time together, but that time then becomes more and more painful with “unsolvable” arguments until they one day find divorce paperwork in front of them wondering, “Could this possibly have been prevented?”
Of all of the effects, I feel the painful self-preservation part is the most insidious, because it beats us with our own guilt while stealing the energy we needed to have been able to do something about it. Much like an old Mad Tv commercial of a roach trap that beats the roach with its own legs. It pushes us into a state in life where we are never content with any area of our lives while we also no longer have the energy to do anything about them. And thus, a tough challenge of wellness is to learn to say, “It's OK.” To learn to accept where we are, to learn to always be content while also always moving towards peaceful solutions. I would argue that areas in our life that we are unwilling to say ‘It’s Ok’ will also remain areas that magically appear to be unsolvable, as if a powerful mage had cursed things to always remain that way, and the first step to breaking that curse is our own willingness to believe, followed by gentle movement along the path to wellness.
We spend far too much time beating ourselves up that when we face actual criticism or even constructive criticism from our peers, loved ones or associates, we shoot them down, get angry, justify, hide -anything and everything except for listening and improving. It's actually impossible for something to “strike a nerve” with us unless we had already been saying the same thing to ourselves… for months, years or our entire lives and at that point we have to ask, “Who's being more verbally abusive? Them or ourselves?”
With all of that going on lets then look at what stress does to some common wishes:
We generally won’t even begin a friendship unless they agree with our way of viewing life to begin with. The stress response system dictates that our survival is at stake and must think more of ourselves and our ‘tribe.’ It makes us become more selfish, less able to listen or admire positive things in others. To survive, a friendship must struggle to overcome those obstacles.
You’re not lonely – you’re stressed!
A Vibrant Relationship
Relationships are friendships at heart. I don’t believe it’s possible to even fall in love until both sides let their guards down and become willing to actually look into the others’ eyes and notice what’s there. Love at first sight then can only really happen when both people are at ease, or in ‘rest and digest mode’ as we’ll cover later. The cumulative effects of chronic stress will slowly push even the closest loved ones away. A relationship will slowly fall apart not because “they didn’t realize who the other person “really was” or that “maybe opposites shouldn’t attract after all” but because stress itself makes each side focus more on their truths while becoming less able to listen or even take joy in the contributions of the other. Slight negative acts become unforgivable and good acts become taken for granted, or entirely unnoticed.
Your relationship isn’t struggling – You’re stressed!
Who can honestly achieve wellness with increasing levels of pain, disease, mistakes, heart breaks, anger, depression and so on as caused or multiplied by stress?
You’re not unwell – You’re stressed!
Have you seen someone try to paint a wall while highly stressed about it? Stress leads to further mistakes which will only make that painter more stressed, angry and sloppy. It becomes comical very quickly. Success requires us to act more than we worry or feel guilty. Success requires us to constantly grow spiritually, physically and mentally, aka the path to wellness, which stress will cancel out or askew to cause our good intentions to turn slowly or suddenly into cautionary tales.
You’re not unsuccessful – You’re stressed!
One hour of stress costs us as much energy as eight hours of high intensity cross fit and causes as much damage to our bodies as getting hit by a car. Any energy or will power left over at that point becomes fueled more by building levels of anger, pain and the desire to overcome others until we become more like ‘Bane’ from batman. Our journey of growth often ends up hurting ourselves and others while we think we are ‘the most woke.’
You’re not weak – you’re stressed!
By now, you get why it can be so hard to help others and what’s in your own way of helping them and in their way of receiving said help. When down, our pride and ego becomes more important than our wellbeing or even our relationships, making it nigh impossible to reach or help them.
They’re not hard to help – They’re stressed!
Weight gain is largely a result of the effects of stress shutting down our digestion and holding onto more calories and we should thus look at fat as the manifestation of stress itself. So instead of poking your belly and saying you’re fat, instead say, “I’m going to work on getting rid of this stress!”
You’re not fat – You’re stressed!
Fight or flight mode is like the iconic raging drunk parent, who answers our cries of pain with, “WHY ARE YOU CRYING!? I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT!” “You think your relationship is having a hard time now? Wait till I kick in! You think you’re in pain now? Wait until I turn off your ability to heal!”
We have all seen this mode in action trying to help us ‘save the day’ as in someone who’s stressed about their weight and ends up continually ‘eating their emotions’ instead. Or a stressed-out student who becomes addicted to video games and finds study ineffective at raising their grades. Or a lover who desperately tries to bring their significant other closer... and only ends up pushing them further away… to a harmful ex. Or a writer who becomes so stressed that they will never be good enough, that completing anything becomes a miracle in itself.
It’s the ‘Mad Tv Anti-Hero’ to every one of our desires, wishes and dreams with such power that we’ve decided pain, disease, ageing, arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus, clinical depression and everything we dislike of our world are ‘just an inescapable part of life’ and there’s nothing we can do about it.
It’s the Jhon Hancock drunken superhero that causes far more damage than it attempts to solve, except without any ability to improve over time and as it looks back at multiplied devastation its solution is always, “I need to hit harder next time. That will do it!”
Interestingly, Eminem’s song ‘Lose Yourself,’ nails the phenomena of stress well. The depiction shows a person so nervous they can’t even sing when that’s their dream, until they learn to overcome their jitters and own the moment in the attempt to try and overcome truly challenging circumstances.
That is a very Samurai-like frame of mind that’s pivotal to being able to face the challenges of life with pride and swift action.
 (Course, n.d.)
 (Schneiderman, Ironson, & Siegel, 2005)
 (Kalia, 2002)
 (Cherry, n.d.)
 (Kalia, 2002)
 (Palmer, 2013)
 (Barrett, 1995)
 (Schneiderman, Ironson, & Siegel, 2005)
 (Stafford, n.d.)
So, for once and for all, let's each do our part to help spread information on stress and what we can do to overcome it.
Our lives don't have to be as painful, challenging and heartbreaking as they've been. All it takes is our decision to unite in a effort to finally address it.
Never give up, never surrender.