The acute stress response, also known widely as the fight or flight response, is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived threat or danger. It is a primitive survival mechanism that prepares the body to fight the danger, flee from it, freeze amidst it, or appease it.
Here are the four responses to the stressor or perceived threat:
Fight: Actively confronting–aggressive behavior, assertiveness, or a willingness to take risks.
Flight: Avoiding or escaping. Physical removal from the source, procrastination, or seeking distractions.
Freeze: “Playing dead” or becoming immobile, feeling paralyzed, numb, or dissociated.
Fawn: Seeking to appease or please the source. People-pleasing behavior, over-compliance, or seeking validation from others.
The acute stress response can be triggered by a variety of stimuli, including physical threats, emotional stressors, and even certain social situations. These triggers can be both real and perceived threats.
Here are the four main stages of the acute stress response:
- Perception: The brain perceives a threat or danger, either through sensory input or via thoughts and emotions.
- Activation: Once the threat is perceived, the brain activates the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones into the bloodstream.
- Response: The release of adrenaline causes a number of physiological changes in the body, including increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and heightened senses. These are designed to prepare the body to defend against the perceived threat (using one of the 4F responses above).
- Recovery: Once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and helps the body return to a state of relaxation. Heart rate and breathing slow down, and the body returns to its normal state.
While this is a natural and important part of our physiological response to stress, it’s important for our bodies to be able to complete the response cycle and return to a state of relaxation. If the stress response becomes chronic and our bodies remain in a state of heightened alertness for extended periods of time, it can have negative effects on both our physical and mental health.
Here are a few things you can do to help your body complete the acute stress response and avoid getting stuck in a state of chronic stress:
- Engage in physical activity: Helps to burn off excess adrenaline and other stress hormones and promotes the release of endorphins, which can counteract negative effects.
- Practice relaxation techniques: Mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing can help return your body to a state of relaxation.
- Get enough sleep: Aiming for seven to nine hours of sleep per night can help your body complete the stress response.
- Seek social support: Promotes relaxation and a general sense of well-being. Reach out to friends/family during times of stress, or consider joining a support group or seeking therapy.
- Practice healthy habits: Eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, and avoiding or reducing drugs and alcohol can help to enhance physical and emotional health.
Disclaimer: All blog posts are intended for educational purposes and cannot replace direct consultation with a professional provider. Please feel free to check our provider page for more information on our team of talented clinicians who can help you identify and challenge your negative thought patterns.