Yesterday I had the misfortune of witnessing a small child have a terrible accident. She fell from a height in the playground and struck her head on a brick. Whilst we were waiting for the ambulance we helplessly watched as she came in and out of consciousness and a large swelling grew on the side of her head. Thankfully my friend and I were able to organise the emergency response as the little girl’s mother held her daughter, shocked and helpless. It was a truly awful experience.
One of my jobs during this emergency was to go out and wait on the street for the ambulance. Whilst I was waiting (which seemed an interminably long time), I became aware of my own personal state of feelings and bodily sensations, of how it feels to be ‘in the thick of’ a highly anxious situation. Psychologists call this the stress response which affects almost all body systems when we are faced with extreme anxiety, fear, distress, overwhelm, or threat. The stress response is the classic ‘fight or flight’ reaction in the body when we encounter situations which we deem as dangerous and is designed to enable us to meet these challenges and ultimately preserve our lives.
What actually happens during the stress response? Chemically, our endocrine system (our glands) immediately produces large quantities of hormones such as epinephrine (adrenalin) and cortisol –the body’s chemical messengers of stress -in order to swiftly mobilise physical response to danger. Endorphins are similarly released, whilst progesterone and testosterone are reduced. Sugar and insulin are released to provide energy. Physically, the heart begins racing as respiration (breathing rate) increases. The blood actually also thickens which experts believe is to limit excessive bleeding should we become wounded by the stressor. The skin may ‘crawl’ or sweat to regulate body temperature, and our senses become highly acute. This is the body’s response to a perceived threat, all of which happens in moments.
Waiting for the ambulance yesterday, I became aware of how difficult it was to try and remain calm and collected during the chemical and physical storm of stress response. Afterwards, as we were going home, my friend commented how exhausted she felt from the experience. I noticed the beginnings of a headache forming. We both felt the need for ‘a drink’. Our bodies were returning to chemical and physical normality and now felt drained by the huge effort of mobilisation. Instead, we did go home and have a cup of tea and ‘debrief’ our personal experiences of what had happened –similar to how clients ‘process’ trauma in the counselling setting. For both of us, this really helped.
Our thoughts are with that little girl and her family.
What is surprising to know is that for many people living with chronic stress, their bodies are frequently or constantly in the stress response. Research has shown this to wreak havoc on our bodies, and is linked to common issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, palpitations, migraine, chronic pain and anxiety disorders, and serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer.
If excessive stress is a problem for you, therapy may help. Call for an appointment at my Wimbledon counselling practise 0796 9501 888.
Ref: Karren, K.J., Smith, N.L., Hafen, B.Q., Jenkins, K.J. (Eds.), (2010). Mind Body Health. San Fransisco, CA: Pearson Education Inc.