When internal or external events lead to an experience of excessive stress, the “fight or flight” response is triggered. This can occur for a number of reasons, including workplace stress, bullying, health issues, feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, relationship problems, or a build up of smaller stressors that continue to accumulate. The fight/flight response being activated in these situations causes neural and bodily changes aimed at helping us stay safe from danger and harm.
The sympathetic nervous system is involved in activating this response which sends a message to the adrenal glands to increase the release of adrenalin. As a result, a number of physiological changes occur (e.g. an increased respiration rate or rapid breathing, redirection of blood flow to our muscles and limbs, heightened sensory awareness; and expansion of the airways in the lungs) to prepare us to get away and stay safe from danger.
During the activation of the fight/flight response, everything in our environment is perceived as a possible threat. This response is very helpful when the situation is genuinely threatening to our lives; however, most “threats” experienced today do not pose serious danger. This causes an issue as the stress hormones may be released on a daily basis to everyday stressors that are perceived as threatening, but are not actually life-threatening. While there is definite overlap between stress and anxiety, stress is caused by an existing stress-causing situation and anxiety is stress that continues after that stressor is gone. In addition, stress is often associated with frustration and nervousness, whereas anxiety is commonly based on fear and worry.
Rather than being protective, the fight/flight response to stress can actually be self-defeating and work against emotional or psychological well-being.
Treatment for stress involves stress management techniques including various types of relaxation, active and passive muscle relaxation, imagery, and mindfulness. However, if stress is constant and ongoing, treatment may also focus on eliminating certain stressors, problem-solving specific issues, and sometimes making lifestyle changes. In addition, there may be underlying reasons (e.g. history of anxiety, frequent unhelpful thoughts, or negative past experiences) that may cause specific issues to be more stressful for one person than another. Treatment may, therefore, also look at some of the patterns that have developed for the individual that may contribute to how stress occurs for that person.
This may be done using Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Schema-Focused Therapy, or other therapies that look more closely at underlying patterns of thought, feelings and behaviours. Although at times, there may also be significant life stressors that cannot be eliminated, removed, reduced, or changed; in these circumstances, the treatment may use an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach.