Sunday, October 11, 2009

Stress and Survival Instincts

I am so excited to share with you the thoughts of Doctor D- a practicing MD who wants to help those looking for answers to their medical questions. He wants to participate in this month's challenge by sharing with us in two posts what he knows about anxiety, specifically what we have been learning about with the Stress Response System.

"Understanding human stress instincts can be very empowering for someone with an Anxiety Disorder.
The trouble with human instincts is that they aren't there to be understood but obeyed unquestioningly.  Understanding your instincts, however, takes away their mysterious power and makes them a function of your brain and body that you can comprehend and counterbalance.

The human stress response is an amazing system designed to keep you alive when threatened with death.  The reason you inherited such a powerful stress response is that it has worked, keeping generations of your ancestors alive.

Fortunately, most of us live in an environment in which real threats to our life and limb are very rare or non-existent.  For your hunter-gather ancestors violence and danger may have been around every corner, but you do your hunting and gathering at the local grocery with laws in place and police nearby to stop most violence.   So why are the safest human beings in history always so stressed?

Many of us have trouble turning off our instincts.  Survival reflexes often kick in when we don't need them.  Your ancestors had brief periods of terror when they may have needed to “fight or flee” to survive.  These stressful periods in their lives usually ended quickly, and the body was able to recharge within a low-stress state.

The problem with modern stresses is while they may never kill you—they also never go away.  The number one thing people tell Doctor D they stress about is their finances.  Almost nobody in the US dies from being poor, but the pressures of monthly bills never go away.  The modern world uses deadlines and debt to keep us motivated to work, which keeps us constantly stressed.  A mortgage lasts 30 years!  Stressing for that long wrecks havoc on the body. 

In the short run stress reactions and “fight or flight” reflexes do wonders for a body in danger.  The immune and digestive systems slow to allow the muscles to get the greater share of the body's power.  We increase fat stores and blood sugar to have instant energy ready. We become more sensitive to pain so we can detect threats more quickly.  We sleep poorly so we are constantly on alert.  The heart beats faster; the blood pressure is higher.  Our minds are constantly scanning our environment for threats, keeping us from focusing deeply on any one thing.  Trust me, if you are going into battle tomorrow this exactly how you want your body to behave!   But the body and brain cannot indefinitely sustain this state.  If it lasts too long your physical and emotional health can be significantly damaged.

People with Anxiety Disorders have inherited an extra helping of these survival reflexes.  The unending stress of modern life are constantly triggering these powerful, primitive reflexes.   Our daily problems need thoughtful problem solving—something that the “fight or flight” response gets in the way of.  The very instinct that is there to keep you alive makes you sick and keeps you from solving your problems.

So the important thing to understand about Anxiety is that it is a natural and healthy response.  Understanding that that what you feel in anxiety is a natural reaction helps you have a sense of control.  Realizing that it follows certain rules helps you respond to stress reactions thoughtfully.  Seeing that the “fight or flight” response is being triggered unnecessarily helps you know how to put it aside for when you really need it. 

Doctor D isn't saying that understanding Stress instincts will make all Anxiety problems go away, but knowledge (such as the sort you are getting in the October Education Challenge) gives perspective and power that can make you own the Anxiety, so it doesn't own you."

Doctor D is not an expert on Anxiety Disorder or even a psychiatrist.  He is a regular doctor who blogs at Ask An MD.  Doctor D has cared for lots of patients with anxiety while living a high stress life, so he has given a lot of thought to Anxiety.  Most of his experience is anecdotal from years of practicing medicine.  For specific treatments or advice about your own anxiety be sure to talk to your doctor.

Thanks Doctor D!

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Bill said...

Nice post, Aimee - and doc.

Bill said...

I'm very glad to read these comments from a practicing physician. Anxiety has typically taken somewhat of a back seat in terms of PCP treatment. Good news here.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, I used to have a fear of driving which was based around anxiety and this kind of info would have been very useful when I needed it.


avagam said...

Nice article, thanks for publishing. especially useful to hear from practicing doctor.

I recently found natural method and publish about it at my Panic Attack blog.

Bryan said...

I'm really stressed because of my work and these tips of yours seems to be good and will surely give it a try. Hope it'll work, thanks!

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