Experts explain how stress can affect our emotions, memory, sleep and relationships.
You may have heard of the fight-or-flight response, an evolutionary mechanism that allows us to enter a state of survival in the presence of physical or psychological threats. And while the answer may be critical in how we deal with stressyou may also have noticed occasions when your heart was pounding, you felt flushed, or you were on high alert, even if you weren’t in immediate danger.
The truth is, your fight-or-flight response can activate at any moment, even when the only threats around are imaginary, Simone Saunders, a trauma therapist and founder of Cognitive Corner, a group psychology study, told HuffPost. This usually occurs in people who have experienced a traumatic event, whether they know it or not.
I always like to use the analogy that our amygdala, or emotional center of the brain, is similar to a smoke detector in that it can’t distinguish between real or perceived danger, Saunders said. Whether you burn your food or your house is on fire, your smoke alarm goes off either way.
Your flight or flight mode is activated bysympathetic nervous system, which responds to stress triggers by increasing heart rate, blood pressure and concentration. In theory, this is good, it’s meant to force you to take action to temporarily protect yourself or prepare you for something bad. But sometimes, this can go haywire. Exposure to stressful situations can feel intense, repetitive, and sustained by your brain and body, locking you into a fight-or-flight state that can persist for days, months, or even years.
Your nervous system collects lifelong data about what people, places or experiences have threatened in some way, Saunders said. Then, when you have an encounter that recalls those previous experiences, the smoke detector, or fight-or-flight response, goes off, letting you know that something about this encounter feels dangerous.
Acute traumatic events, such as accidents, natural disasters, school violence, war experiences, or the sudden loss of a loved one, can cause the body and mind to react. For example, if you are involved in a car accident, you may have flashbacks to the event, avoid getting into a car, or experience physical and mental fight-or-flight symptoms such as shaking and racing thoughts even when you are not near a vehicle . Chronic and ongoing stressors, including prejudice, community violence, and financial insecurity, can also put you in this state.
After a period of prolonged exposure to stress, you may not notice that you are experiencing a constant state of fight or flight because the reaction has become habitual. We asked the experts what the signs are that your mind and body haven’t returned to their normal resting state.
You are emotionally numb
When stress is chronic, the body’s response system becomes overwhelmed, causing a breakdown that can leave you feeling numb to everything. This emotional narrow-mindedness can make you feel like you are on autopilot or disconnected from yourself and others.
You may be unable to respond to emotions, which can lead to forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, hopelessness, feelings of shame, and self-defeating behaviors.
Chronic exposure, or repeated trauma and continued exposure to danger, places individuals in a chronic state of trauma [and] seriously impairs their recovery, Dr. Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, a professor in Georgetown University’s department of psychiatry, told HuffPost. The physical effects, or injuries gained from traumatic experiences, become constant reminders [and] it can also hinder recovery.
You are always tired, but you cannot rest
In a 2023 survey conducted by the Sleep Foundation54% of participants mentioned stress and anxiety as the main reasons they had difficulty sleeping or could not fall asleep at all.
A common symptom of prolonged stress it is hypervigilance, which keeps the mind and body alert and in survival mode to protect themselves. Sleep disturbances and muscle tension can be caused by biological changes. Other sleep problems can include nightmares, waking up early, sleeping restlessly, and having trouble falling asleep.
Chronic exposure to cortisol, the stress hormone in the body, can put us in a constant state of hyperawareness to our surroundings caused by the fight-or-flight response, which is inherently exhausting for the body, Saunders said. However, this can extend to our rest periods, where our nervous system needs to be in a calm state to get restful sleep.
Insomnia can be a sign of chronic stress.
You have memory lapses
Prolonged periods of fight or flight can increase the release of stress hormones in brain regions that involve memory. To survive, the brain distances itself from traumatic events or stressful situations, an effect known as dissociation.
Dissociation can create a disconnect in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, and identity. It can be the result of severe stress or trauma, causing the brain to protect itself by distorting perceptions of time, space, and identity.
Because stress can lead to functional and structural changes in the brain, high levels of stress can as well cause memory loss.
During this process, the coherent narrative of the traumatic event may be lost, but our brains store information about the event in other ways, such as by remembering smells, tastes, sounds, physical sensations and/or certain images, Saunders said.
Repressed memories occur when the trauma is too severe to store in conscious memory. However, elements of an event in our memory can be reset or triggered.
Because coherent narrative is typically not stored and unprocessed, we may notice that we are triggered by seemingly unrelated things the smell of a fragrance, the taste of a certain beverage, a disapproving facial expression, Saunders said.
You are responsive in situations where you normally are not
While chronic stress can cause emotional openness, a chronic state of fight or flight can also lead to volatility. After coping with stressful situations, it can be difficult to regulate emotions such as anger, sadness, and shame.
For example, you may be anxious in the wake of a traumatic event and not realize that the anxiety is transferring into situations involving other stressors. Perhaps a minor inconvenience makes you explode in anger. Feelings of anger are normal, but misplaced anger can be a sign that you’re already in a state of chronic stress.
Because emotions like anger, anxiety, and fear trigger the fight-or-flight response, the body can react almost immediately, even in situations where you’ve misplaced your feelings.
After a traumatic experience, Dass-Brailsford said, how well a person copes with stressors depends on a multitude of factors, including intensity, chronicity, pre-existing physical ailments and effects, personality, and cognitive style.
Because some people show reactions externally and others internally, there are many factors that shape reactions, Dass-Brailsford said. The more intense and prolonged the trauma, the more damaging its effects.
You are avoiding or participating in situations that could cause stress
If you’re stuck in survival mode, you can try to keep yourself away from circumstances that could cause you stress, including people, places and situations which can arouse certain emotions and memories.
It’s actually a survival response to avoid people, places and experiences that are reminiscent of a previous traumatic experience, Saunders said. The nervous system tries to keep us safer by using avoidance.
However, some people choose to surround themselves with similar stressors.
This can also work the other way around, Saunders said. At times, we may also gravitate towards triggering situations as an unconscious way of trying to control and overcome previous similar traumas.
Whether it’s avoiding stressful situations or engaging in them, trying to gain control and staying away from memories that remind you of previous experiences are both ways to keep yourself in survival mode.
How to calm your fight or flight response
A little stress can be healthy, contributing to resilience and cognitive benefits. However, this is only the case with low to moderate levels of stress.
Too much stress can send messages to the brain that a traumatic stressor is still present, putting you in a fight-or-flight state. But there are ways to unlearn the triggers that automatically respond to stress. Dass-Brailsford quoted psychotherapy, medications, and coping skills, such as relaxation, exercise, and social support.
Eliminating chronic stress can be difficult. Llistening to your body and making time to process your emotions are important for coping.
Physical ways to ensure you are taking care of yourself include exercise, eat regularly and get enough sleep. Positive social support it can also help with stress and help protect you from trauma.
Above all, it’s important to recognize when you need help, which can mean getting support from available resources.
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