It has been said that we hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not understand. There is a lot of fear in our modern world, a lot of hatred, and certainly a lot of things we just don’t understand. Suicide bombings, murder in the name of religion, racial profiling and injustice in the name of safety, and general intolerance in the name of tolerance and inclusion. Many of us long for the days of civil discourse and open debate. It is not the purpose of this article to explore how we created such a culture of incivility and fear. Those conclusions are best seen in the rear view mirror. Rather the purpose of this article is to talk about how fear instigates and perpetuates the stress response in the human body, what that looks like, what that results in, and how you can actively manage it in order to live a happier, healthier life.
How are stress and fear related?
We know that stress is the body’s response to a perceived threat. When the sympathetic nervous system is aroused, it starts a process that is out of our control. Stress is the same thing—or at least it is a kissing cousin. Don’t think so? Have you ever walked into a dark room and had someone jump out and scare you? Or had someone nearly hit your car with theirs? Did your heart race? Did your palms sweat? Did your knees buckle? Did you suddenly get thirsty? Have you ever been called into your boss’s office in the middle of the day for no apparent reason? Did you have a knot in your stomach? Did you lose your appetite? All of these physical manifestations happen as a part of the stress response. They are physiologically necessary for survival.
In any situation where you perceive danger (real or imagined), your central nervous system sends messages faster than the speed of light with information about the threat to the hypothalamus part of your brain. This system takes over while the conscious brain fumbles around, trying to figure out what to do, where to hide, why is this happening? Your entire body chemistry changes in the matter of a few seconds. You suddenly feel more alert and alive as you feel a shot of adrenaline hit you. The normal process of request and receive is bypassed because of the emergency. The message goes straight to your adrenal glands which start producing adrenaline, noradrenaline, epinephrine, norephinephrine. These powerful chemicals increase heart rate and stroke volume to provide more blood to your brain so you can think quickly and to your muscles so you can act quickly. Your arteries constrict, raising your blood pressure and forcing blood into your muscles so you can run, fight, or whatever you need to do. Your blood thickens in order to clot more easily in case of injury. Your spinal cord begins to stretch and lengthen like a rubber band being pulled at both ends. All the fight and flight systems are on high alert, while all the rest and digest systems take a back seat.
When stress is chronic
Cortisol is a stress hormone that will make you fat, sick, and tired. If not addressed, it will cause chronic dis-ease. At a certain blood concentration of cortisol, the level of protection is theoretically achieved, and the cortisol initiates the negative feedback loop to the hypothalamus; telling it to stop releasing CRF; and then telling the pituitary to stop releasing ACTH. At this point, homeostasis or balance and calm returns. But what if it doesn’t?? With repeated exposure to stress, our bodies are habituated to the stressor with constant, chronic, sustained HPA axis activation (the stress response.) That is why it is so very important to cage the monster of stress and nip its effects in the bud if possible. Psychology Today recently labeled cortisol “Public Enemy #1” because of its damaging effects on the human body at a cellular level.
How stress and fear are different
Stress comes in many varieties—viral, bacterial, parasitic, fungal, toxic, chemical, mechanical, emotional, physical, spiritual. Many of the assaults to our bodies are plainly just part of living in our modern world. We can’t avoid air pollution. We can’t stop all the germs that land on us in the elevator. We can’t change modern day farming practices. There is much we can’t control, but fear is a bit different. It comes in one variety: mental thoughts that start with “what if” and often end up with a worst case scenario. The fear of loss in humans is very keen—a primary motivator that has made many advertisers rich. What if you lose your job? Or your child? Or your lover? Or your home? Or your reputation? Or your car? Or your wallet? Or your mind? Or your health? So many things to lose. So when you combine a world that seems to have gone mad with the natural human tendency to picture the worst case scenario, you have the perfect recipe for fear and stress.
The power of choice
The one piece of the puzzle that we are leaving out is the power of human choice. Unlike all the other animals on this planet, we alone have the frontal lobe capability to make executive decisions not based on instinct. We can differentiate in our minds whether a threat is real or imagined; and even if it could be real, we can choose to stop the stress response in its tracks by acts of free will. We can counterbalance the stresses and fears of life with positive, healthful, lifestyle choices. Since anxiety is an imbalanced aspect of the fear dimension in our thinking, we can bring it back into balance with our minds. What a marvelous gift! What an awesome responsibility to choose wisely. The moment of decision comes when the fear first hits us. We see a subway bombing, or we hear about yet another police shooting. We must choose in that moment whether to internalize the messages bombarding us from every media outlet, or to conquer that fear before it spirals into the stress response. As Martin Luther once said, “You can’t stop birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair.”
Anyone who has been a part of a 12 step program knows that serenity (the opposite of stress and fear) begins when you have the wisdom to know what you can and can’t control. You can’t control the crazy things happening in our world today, but you can control how much you internalize those messages and allow them to influence your moods and behavior. And you can transcend the hatred, confusion, and misunderstanding all around you by becoming an agent of peace, by consciously and consistently practicing lovingkindness to other humans, and by practicing civil discourse in a world shouting obscenities.
Dr. Pete Sulack is founder of StressRX.com and UnhealthyAnonymous, the 12 step program to reducing and managing stress levels, as well as the majority owner of one of the largest clinics in North America. His office has seen more than 1,000,000 patient visits over the last 13 years, validating his unique approach to health and wellness. Dr. Pete actively treats patients traveling from around the world seeking his services. His studies on the effects of stress, coupled with testimonials from patients and attention in medical communities have garnered him the title of “America’s Leading Stress Expert.” He is a highly sought-after teacher, lecturer and author.