Why Is Stress A Problem?
For a more thorough definition of what stress is, see the What is Stress and Stages of Fight or Flight pages. As a brief preface to this section, I will re-state that the stress response, or fight or flight response, involves physiological mechanisms that change our body and its function in a number of ways that ideally give us an advantage when responding to danger. As we will discuss more in this and other sections, these changes also have wide-ranging effects on the body, including immune system function, cardiovascular health, musculoskeletal health (joint compression, muscular tension, etc.) memory formation, and much more.
A well-functioning nervous system would be able to transition between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system states quickly and easily, creating an appropriate balance that allows for energy, vitality, and a well-functioning body. The issue in modern culture tends to be that the fight or flight state is activated excessively and inappropriately, the ability to flip back to the parasympathetic state is weakened or lost, and the healthy balance between the two nervous system states is lost, causing us to spend an excessive amount of time in the fight or flight state. Hans Selye, the pioneering researcher on the stress response, noted that over-activation of the stress response could lead to disease and illness. Let’s take a closer look at why this happens.
Over-Activation of the Fight or Flight Nervous System
The sympathetic, or fight or flight or nervous system state is optimal for responding to situations of immediate and extreme physical danger, or for investigating whether or not this danger exists. The parasympathetic state is optimal for times when we don’t need to respond to immediate and extreme physical danger and also allows for optimal functioning of other systems of our body. The issue appears to be that, for humans, we can also activate the fight or flight nervous system in response to anxiety or tension that comes up in everyday life – frustration at traffic jams or dislike of co-workers or a dissatisfying career – as well as stressful thoughts – the anticipation of negative outcomes or future stressful events, remembering past stressful events, or feeling insulted by someone’s bad behavior, to name just a few examples. This is an inappropriate activation, as this is not what the system – and all the associated physiological and structural changes – is designed to respond to.
Inappropriate activation of the fight or flight nervous system appears to be problem for a couple of reasons. The first is that activating the nervous system in these situations does not provide the opportunity to relieve the fight or flight response. Physical activity burns off the stress hormones produced during the fight or flight response, thus allowing our nervous system to return to the parasympathetic state if the danger does not persist. In a true fight or flight situation, we often have the opportunity for a physical response, such as fighting or running away. At work, on the other hand, punching people, fighting or running away are usually not appropriate responses to the situation, and so in many of these situations we remain sedentary and retain these hormones in our body, which keeps the fight or flight nervous system active for long periods. This means that the above-referenced physiological and structural changes, some examples of which are mentioned in the nervous system and stages of fight or flight sections also remain for long periods of time, resulting in non-optimal functioning of body systems and many associated health problems.
The second reason inappropriate activation of the fight or flight nervous system can be an issue is that, as the body stays in fight or flight for long periods of time, it loses the ability to flip back to parasympathetic quickly and easily, thus perpetuating the habit of remaining in fight or flight.
To understand how to address this issue, see the How To Reduce Stress page.