• Carlien Serfontein

Fight or flight?

Imagine bending a thin branch slowly, until it snaps.

This is what stress is for the human body and mind. It is an internal or external pressure placed on an individual that feels like it is pushing the limits (Blake, 2017). Mostly, stress can be a good thing; it helps us meet deadlines, identify possible stressors, keeps us safe and alert, pass exams and a host of other things (Blake, 2017).

Where little bits of healthy stress is good, prolonged mild-to-moderate stress can cause over-stimulation and become chronic (Spayde, 2019). When this happens, it might feel like you are stretched too thin, you have a short temper for no reason at all and there are several time’s a day that you feel overwhelmed and short of breath (Harvard Health, 2020).

Our bodies have this unique survival mechanism that has been developed over hundreds of millions of years (Spayde, 2019). The fight-or-flight response (identified by American physiologist Walter Cannon in the 1920s) literally kick-started the body to help our ancestors avoid dangers. The responses in the body, when facing a critical incident included: rapid heart rate, increased breathing to oxygenate our blood, acute focus, dilated pupils to improve sight and tense muscles primed for action (Seong, 2018). Our brain releases hormones called adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that results in the physical changes in our bodies (Blake, 2017). After a critical incident of avoiding danger, our ancestors would have hours to come down and relax.

It takes 20-60 minutes for the body to return to pre-stressor state (Seong, 2018), but unfortunately the modern human does not have that luxury. We are chronically stressed because of busy schedules, high pressure job performance, electronic devices, being “always-on” and connected and more recently controversial challenges like a pandemic.

Physical effects:

Being chronically stressed causes havoc on the body and our mental health (Blake, 2017). Our immune system is compromised and our ability to fight off illness is reduced, our musculoskeletal system is affected and we are more prone to aches and pains like shoulders and tension headaches and our cardiovascular system is affected with a constant elevated heart rate an in increase in blood pressure (Blake, 2017). Mentally, our endocrine system that regulates hormones is affected. This results in issues with our moods, growth and development, metabolism and reproductive processes (Blake, 2017). Notably, when we are experiencing chronic stress, sugar (glucose) is produced by the liver to provide energy to deal with the situation, and when not used, that sugar is absorbed by the blood, which results in weight gain and increases our risk for diabetes (Blake, 2017).

Emotional effects:

Chronic stress has an immense effect on our bodies and as a result our emotional wellbeing is affected. We tend to be more moody, feel more tired, react irritably without reason, have issues sleeping, struggling with concentration and memory issues (Blake. 2017).

So what can you do?

The following techniques are medically proven to reduce stress for modern humans and to counter the results of the stress response:

Relaxation response. Studies by Dr. Herbert Benson prove that abdominal breathing, focusing on a soothing word, visualisation of a tranquil scene (guided imagery), repetitive prayer, yoga and tai chi are excellent ways to help the body reach a state of calm (Harvard Health, 2020; Scott, 2020). Although these techniques are not cures, they have shown marked effects in people suffering from hypertension and heart disease (Harvard Health, 2020).

Physical activity. Exercise is the best way to relieve stress as it deepens breathing and helps release muscle tension (Reese, 2019; Harvard Health, 2020; Scott 2020).

Social support. Feeling connected and not isolated can figuratively “share the load”. Talking therapy with a professional as well as social events with friends, a partner or family can relieve stress (Reese, 2019; Scott, 2020).

Eat healthy food. There is a growing body of research that suggests food influences our mood and promotes our feelings of wellbeing (Reese, 2019; Mental Health Foundation, 2020; Scott, 2020).

Sleep better. It is commonly assumed that stress causes a lack of sleep, but the reverse is also true; a lack of sleep can result in the body not adapting well to healthy stress (Mental Health Foundation, 2020). Avoid electronic gadgets before going to bed as they restrain the production of melatonin that controls your sleep cycle and keep your brain alert (National Sleep Foundation, 2020).

We are aware of most of these techniques, yet I don’t think we fully understand the negative impact stress can have on our bodies and our mind. We push ourselves to get to our next break, our next week off, our next visit with a loved one; yet we don’t do the small and easily manageable tasks we could incorporate every day. By making tiny changes to our eating, sleeping and exercising habits, we can make a major difference in how our body reacts to stressors. Further, seeking out support and training ourselves in relaxation techniques will further equip us to live a more balanced life.


Blake, H. (2017, August 9). How your body reacts to stress . Retrieved from Smithsonian Magazine:

Harvard Health . (2020, July 6). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved from Harvard Medical School:

Mental Health Foundation. (2020, December 4). How to mange and reduce stress. Retrieved from Mental Health Foundation:

National Sleep Foundation. (2020, December 12). Ways technology affects sleep. Retrieved from

Reese, N. (2019, July 3). 10 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress. Retrieved from Healthline:

Scott, E. (2020, January 8). Effective Stress Relievers for Your Life. Retrieved from VeryWellMind:

Seong, J. (2018). How the Fight or Flight Response works. Retrieved from The American Insitute of Stress:

Spayde, J. (2019, May 20). The Science of Stress. Retrieved from Experience Life:

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