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Decoding the Stress Response

Updated: Jan 5

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Stress is a normal biological reaction to demands of life. We experience stress when there is an imbalance between the demands being made on us and our resources to cope with those demands.

The term “stress”, as it is currently used was coined by Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”.

What exactly is a Stress Response?

To understand this, we need to go back in time, to our hunter gatherer days. Imagine you are one of these folks, foraging around for some food and suddenly you come across a tiger! Now, you have two choices. Ideally run away and if that is not possible for whatever reason, you have no choice but to fight like mad to save your life. This is called the Flight or Fight response and for us to be able to fight or flight, there are certain physiological changes that needs to happen in the body.

Stress, at its core is a generic response. It wasn't designed for just tigers attacking us or people attacking us. It's an inbuilt system to mobilize other systems in the brain and body. Our brain cannot tell the difference between a tiger attacking us, if we are running a marathon, if we are recovering from surgery/illness, if we are coping with the loss of a loved one or we are simply overworked. Our brain interprets all of these as stress and the response is the same. It is hard-wired biological mechanisms that we are born with.

Stress Response is enabled by two key hormones. Adrenalin and Cortisol, which is part of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis(HPA axis). These two hormones set off a cascade of chain reactions in our body, when we are stressed.

What are these reactions?

  • When we are stressed, we become super alert and our pupils dilate. The purpose of that pupil dilation is to narrow our field of vision. It literally narrows our view of the visual world, to create tunnel vision. We see an object in sharper relief, and everything else in the background fades away and becomes blurry, a bit like capturing a photo on our smartphone. Our eyeballs rotate just slightly toward our nose, which sets our depth of field and focus on that single object. This is a primitive, ancient mechanism by which stress controls the visual field. Our eyes help us to register events in the environment at a distance, in order to alert us and be prepared well in advance. These visual changes help us to zero down on the prey/predator.

  • The next thing that happens is, our lungs go into overdrive. We start breathing faster by hyperventilating to get in as much oxygen as possible.

  • Our liver dumps a ton of glucose into the blood stream. Glucose with the help of oxygen from the hyperventilation, provides us with the energy that is needed to either fight or flee.

  • However, first this glucose and oxygen needs to get to the cells like our limbs, which need them to provide us with the energy. To facilitate this, our heart starts beating faster, to increase our blood pressure, thereby shuttling the required nutrients through the blood to our limbs.

This is called the acute stress response, which is not only good, as you can see, it is literally a life saver. Without this response, we wouldn’t be sitting here. Notice the word ‘acute’? Which means, this has to be for a very short duration. Last long enough to either fight the tiger or manage to run away.

Now, fast forward to the present. We don’t have any tigers chasing us but we have employers, clients, banks, bills, our kids; so much so, even some random car on the motorway, can get us triggered. So many things chasing us and most importantly, it isn’t acute anymore but rather it's all the time. Not only physical objects but even imagined objects, like worrying about something that hasn’t even happened yet. Reminds of something I heard someone say. "Us human beings suffer from only 2 main problems. Memory of the past and imagination of the future." It's not just the stressors but even the thought of a stressor can get us stressed and initiate the stress response.

It's all connected

As mentioned earlier, ‘stress response’ is a life saver, as long as it is acute. Mild, acute stress response can have a host of benefits. For example, moderate exercise, moderate caloric restriction like Intermittent fasting, or hypothermia, like cold exposure, can have positive and stimulatory effects on physiology and fitness due to reduction of oxidative damage or enhanced constitutive innate immunity, and improved longevity. But imagine your blood pressure, glucose levels being constantly elevated (hyperglycemia), heart beating faster all the time (tachycardia). Eventually your adrenals and pancreas wear out. This is when we start putting on weight, become diabetic, suffer from high blood pressure, which eventually will take a toll on our heart and arteries leading to CVDs.

Along with activating things which we need, like shuttling nutrients through the blood to provide energy to the limbs, stress response also activates receptors in tissues that we don’t need and shuts down these features. Everything that is not essential gets turned off. Like growth, reproduction, maintenance (cell repair), Immune response, digestion etc. Let’s face it, If the choice is between digesting our lunch or becoming someone else’s lunch, choice for our brain is a no-brainer. Therefore, when we are chronically stressed, our digestion, ability to reproduce and immunity suffers as well.

The good news is, a lot of these are in our control. Here's what doesn't work to control stress though. Telling our-self to calm down. In fact, that tends to just exacerbate stress. Telling someone else to calm down also tends to exacerbate their stress. If we want to reduce the magnitude of the stress response, the best thing we can do is to activate the counter regulatory system in the body which is designed for calming and relaxation. And that system is called the parasympathetic nervous system. This system is the way by which we control our face the eyes, and to some extent, our airway, the trachea.

Here are some tools that can work in real time, and is grounded in physiology and neuroscience that will allow us to navigate this otherwise complex space. Tools that allow us to push back on stress when stress hits in real time, unlike yoga, meditation, mindfulness, exercise, social connection etc which are all well and good, but more so as long term stress management tools.

Real-time Tools to counter stress

Panoramic vision - Disengage and signal brain that things are under control by switching to Panoramic vision. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University who studies the visual system asserts, by deliberately dilating our gaze, meaning not moving our head and eyes around, but by deliberately going from tunnel vision to broader panoramic vision, literally seeing more of our environment all at once, like looking at the horizon. By deliberately dilating our gaze, it creates a calming effect on the mind because it releases a particular circuit in the brain-stem that's associated with vigilance and alertness, aka stress. It isn’t so much that we take inventory of our environment but rather allow our-self to receive as much of the visual environment as possible.

Looking at wide landscapes, relaxes the eyes and calms us down

Physiological sigh - The way we breathe impacts our states of stress very strongly and there is a way in which we can breathe, that directly controls our heart rate through the interactions between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. This way of breathing is the fastest and most thoroughly grounded in physiology and neuroscience for calming down and bring the level of autonomic arousal back down to baseline in a self-directed way. This is what's called the physiological sigh, S-I-G-H, something which Huberman strongly advocates for. We all tend to engage in this pattern of breathing from time to time and one can notice this in children when they are sobbing.

How does this work? When we feel stressed, anxious, nervous; we need to double inhale. Take a normal breath in and try and sneak another quick breath, followed by a long exhale, which will offload excess carbon dioxide. Our lungs consist of millions of little sacks that actually make the surface area of our lungs as big as a tennis court. As we get stressed, these little sacs collapse. They deflate like a balloon and carbon dioxide builds up in our bloodstream and that's one of the reasons why we feel agitated and jittery as well. Physiological sighs cause the sacs to reinflate and rid the body and blood stream off carbon dioxide, which relaxes us very quickly.

Another physiological reason behind this calming effect is rooted in our anatomy. When we inhale, our lungs expand, pushing the diaphragm down, which increases our heart volume. This decreases the blood flow, which signals the Brain to increase the heart rate. Now, the opposite holds true as well.

When we exhale (especially when it is extended), our lungs shrink and the diaphragm moves up. This decreases the heart volume, increasing the amount of blood flowing through the heart. This signals the brain to slow the heart down. So, if we want to calm down quickly, we need to make our exhales longer and or more vigorous than our inhales.

Movement - To expend excess energy. When we are stressed, we learned that our liver dumps a ton of glucose to provide us with the energy to either fight or flee. It mobilizes this energy and puts us in a state of agitation to enable us to move. Now, thanks to modern day stressors, we neither have to fight nor flee, which leaves all of this glucose sitting in our blood stream, with no real use for it, which makes us restless and puts us in this state of agitation. The best thing we can do, when we feel stressed or when in a stressful situation is to expend this excess energy by doing something physical. This can be as simple as a quick walk, jumping on a trampoline, doing few quick pushups etc. Basically anything that gets us moving. This is important because if we want to control stress, we need to learn how to work with this agitation and not suppress movement, which is against what our body wants us to do.

Physical vs Psychological Stress

Stress can be both physical and psychological. As I mentioned earlier, it is generic and it doesn't distinguish between physical and emotional stress. Stress, really at it’s core, is whether or not our internal experience is matched well or not to our external experience where the events that are happening to us and around us.

One person’s stress is another person’s stimulation!

What is stressful to one individual is a breeze for another. So much so, sometimes we even seek out stress. We pay to get stressed. Roller coaster rides, bungee jumping, watching a scary movie, racing, skydiving. For some people it is exhilarating and for others it is petrifying. Things which stress out some people is stimulating for others. So, it’s not stress per say but how we perceive and respond to stress makes a world of difference.

If the trigger is external, and not in our control - It manifests as anger, irritability and frustration

If the trigger is internal, in our control and we are unable to handle it - It manifests as anxiety and nervousness

This delves into the area of human behaviour and psychology, which is equally fascinating and maybe a topic for another time. Stress and anxiety are gifts that evolution has given us to clue us in to dangers in our surroundings. Anxiety is an internal warning system that alerts us to stress, both those around us and those within us. The takeaway message for now is, identify the stressors that get us triggered and try and eliminate or avoid them when possible. However, if you find yourself in a stressful situation, you have some of the tools, to handle and get you de-stressed in real time.

We many not be able to control our mind with our mind, but we sure can control our breathing, which means we control our heart rate, which means we control our alertness and agitation. We can control our vision, which thereby controls our level of focus. We can control our movement, thereby our level of energy expenditure. All of which help us control, not only our level of stress and our level of calmness, but our overall health and well-being as well.


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