The "fight or flight response" is routinely invoked as a shorthand way of explaining that psychological stress involves activation of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. Too often, the explanation ends there, with the implication that this form of arousal is a bad thing.
The implications are different when the response is considered in context and in contrast to the activation of the parasympathetic division.
Both involve the release of hormones. In one case, the body is preparing to take action (e.g., an increase in heart rate, respiration and perspiration). Activation of the complementary parasympathetic division is associated with relaxation and the body's restorative functions (e.g., sleep and digestion).
What is missed in the shorthand explanation of stress is that the "fight or flight" response is also active when you ride on a roller coaster, ski down a mountain, or go surfing on Maui.
In his definitive text on the biopsychosocial complexities of stress (Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers), Stanford Biology and Neuroscience Professor Robert M. Sapolsky explains that fast-acting, short-lasting stress hormones like adrenaline (epinephrine) are released when life is either exciting (good) or alarming (bad).
Sapolsky notes that in medical schools, this initial activation of the nervous system is described in terms of the "four Fs of behavior -- fight, flight, fear and sex."
Sexual arousal begins as a function of the relaxation response, but when it ends with orgasm, the prepare-to-take-action hormones are involved.
If fast-acting adrenaline was bad for you, then having good sex would be almost the same as being chased by a lion, in terms of stress at least. What is different is that after sex, you might relax and think about having something to eat. After being chased by a lion, you don't relax and you think about being eaten.
At a psychological level, the difference between good excitement and bad distress is a matter of perception, or how you interpret the stimulus event. In terms of your health, what matters is how much excitement you can handle.
When adrenaline is released to get you going, your body will also release slow-acting, longer-lasting, steroid-like stress hormones called "glucocorticoids." These longer-lasting steroidal hormones are the ones that do harm over time, especially if you have to run from the lion every day and think about it every night.
Persistent or chronic activation of the sympathetic division interferes with the body's homeostatic, restorative functions, and it results in a constant, rather than an intermittent flood of glucocorticoids in the body. The excitement may last for just a few minutes, but getting over it can take hours.
They say that in the jungle, "the lion sleeps tonight." The same cannot be said about those who worry about getting their head chewed off in the office everyday.
Even at the end of the day, fear, anxiety and ruminative thinking can keep the stress response active and keep the long-lasting, potentially harmful hormones flowing. In contrast to zebras and gazelles, humans tend to anticipate stressful events and to react on the basis of fear alone.
Unlike zebras, humans have the ability to control, manage and relieve stress. There are four ways this can be done:
First, we can change our perception of events. Setbacks can be viewed as opportunities, frustrations as challenges, and insults as unworthy of attention. Counting your blessings can sometimes put hardships in perspective.
Second, we can choose to change, escape or avoid the situation causing our distress. As hard as this often seems, it may take less energy than fighting the idiots or fleeing the lion.
Third, we can enhance our coping skills and ego strengths. Growth experiences of all kinds can enable us to better handle tasks, to immunize us relative to our fears, and to reduce our emotional vulnerabilities. Social support also helps us cope, so do not be afraid to make friends and to ask for help.
Fourth, we can change the way our bodies react or interrupt the stress response as it starts. When you see the lion coming, take a deep breath before you do anything else. For the rest of the time, exercise regularly, go to bed early, eat healthy, and do yoga. Engage in activities that clear your mind and calm your body.
In the stress equation, the third F (fear) reminds us that our thoughts can be just as potent as external threats.
The fourth F (fornication) accounts for the fact that not all forms of stress and arousal are harmful.