Lets talk about the effects of fear on your body, your mental health and your wellbeing. We all know about the fight or flight response, but do you really know to what extent it can affect you?
You see the fight or flight response is supposed to be in the instant, not for a prolonged period.
So, lets say that you are walking down an alleyway and you can both hear and feel someone coming up behind you. You might do one of three things:
You might run like hell, to the end of the alley way and hope that you will come out of there, unscathed.
You might turn and face your possible attacker and if it turns out that they do intend to harm you, you will now fight for your life.
The third possibility is that you may have the freeze response.
The latter, in most cases, is not the greatest response in serious situations. However, it may prevent you being bitten by a large dog or prevent you from going out on an iced lake.
It is clear from these examples, that this is a short response to a given situation.
If you got out of the alleyway, you may well be panting and sweating and your heart may be beating at a hundred miles an hour, but you are now relieved. Pretty soon, your body will go back to normal. You will stop panting and your breathing will go back to it’s usual pace and your heart rate will calm down and come back to normal. You may still be hot for a while, but this too, will calm down and you will feel like your usual self again.
The danger is over and so your body responds accordingly.
The person who turned to face their attacker will either be the loser and possibly injured or dead, or they will be the winner. If the latter is true, they too will be panting, sweating and their heart racing. This heightened response will calm down fairly quickly, once any danger has passed.
The person who froze in response to a potentially dangerous situation, will still experience all of the above symptoms. Whilst they stood there, frozen, their heart will feel as if it is coming out of their chest. They will have shorter, faster breaths and they will be sweating, possibly profusely. This is because they are not utilising the fight or flight response and the chemicals released in the body with this reaction. They may also be shaking and/or shivering.
So what is really happening in your body when you have this sort of response to a situation?
The blood is pumping oxygenated blood out to the extremities. It draws blood away from everywhere else, so that the blood is concentrated in the muscles to aid escape.
For instance, blood is moved away from the digestive system. After all, why would you need to digest anything when you are running for your life?
At this point, it would be a waste of precious energy, that could be better used to help you escape.
So the blood is pushed towards your muscles, your legs, so you can run. Your heart pumps faster so there is more oxygenated blood sent to where it is needed. Your eye’s also take in more light, so that you are more able to see what is going on. In a way, your body turns you into a mean, lean, fighting machine. Makes me think of the cartoon transformers, but maybe that’s just my head!
So all energy is concentrated on getting you out of that dreadful situation – alive!
This response is ancient and part of the reptilian brain.
DANGER – RED – RESPONSE
Danger is the situation;
Red is the blood and energy concentrated to your limbs.
Response is hopefully, your escape.
So your muscles are pumped up ready, so you have that extra power and strength to deal with the situation.
Okay, so you understand the above scenario’s, but what is really happening to you in these responses?
This also means that the majority of blood, nutrients and oxygen are not going to most of your major organs. This includes your immune system. This is actually shut down in these situations.
Why bother with your immune system, when the next two minutes could cost you your life?
So at this point, your body is not going to be worrying about fighting off any diseases, like Typhoid or Tuberculosis, when this situation you are facing is more imminent.
So in these situations, the fight or flight response actually shuts off the immune system.
The above has shown us that the fight or flight response, is a fast response to a given danger or perceived danger. It is short lived and then the body goes back to normal.
Your body also creates the same response, when you are stressed. Imagine that your boss is your attacker and he shouts and curses at you to get your work done. He tells you that you, “haven’t done this,” or you, ‘haven’t done that.’ He threatens you with the sack on a regular basis. The work is overwhelming.
BUT….. You don’t just have this fight or flight response for 15 minutes, you have it going on all day, every day.
Now, what happens to your body in this situation?
When we have continuous stress because of the situations we find ourselves in, it often means that we don’t eat properly. We grab a sandwich or a bag of crisps, several cups of coffee, biscuits, chocolate, greasy takeaways, cake!
On going stress can affect our sleep, which again can affect both our physical and mental health.
Lets imagine, that with continued stress, your body initially tries to keep the status quo. It keeps working to ensure that you stay healthy despite your acute stress.
However, when this continues for a long period, the bodies functioning starts to break down. Your immune system doesn’t work as well as it did. You have palpitations more often than you would care to admit. You may suffer breathlessness, fatigue, anxiety, poor concentration, headaches, digestive problems.
When your body is beginning to show signs of breakdown, your immune system becomes compromised. You begin to catch anything within two feet of you, a cold, another cold, a throat virus, a stomach bug. Over time your immune system will cease to function properly and now you become fair game for any infection or passing virus.
Over time, with continued stress and/or poor eating habits, your gastrointestinal tract starts to show signs that there is a problem.
It might not be digesting the food as well as it did. Stress can lead to poor digestion and poor uptake of nutrients from your food. This can also lead to reduced hydrochloric acid in your stomach, so bugs can start to breed more.
This can eventually lead to major problems.
Symptoms may include:
Bloating, trapped wind, burping, changes in bowel habit, nausea, reflux and heartburn, diarrhoea, indigestion, weak/brittle nails and hair, hair loss, tiredness and fatigue, neurological issues, such as: tingling, numbness and problems with your vision.
If this progresses, it can lead to anaemia, deficiencies of necessary vitamins like vitamin B12 which is important to ensure the health of red bloods cells and the nervous system. You may become deficient in other vitamins and minerals.
Other serious symptoms of low stomach acid include:
Helicobacter pylori which if untreated, can lead to stomach ulcers
Autoimmune issues and more!
The above discusses some of the effects of prolonged stress, on your gastrointestinal tract and your immune system. There are many more effects that can be brought about by stress, which we haven’t yet discussed. We also, haven’t discussed the effects of long term stress, on the other organs and processes in your body!
It is not possible to discuss all of these in this one post.
You can see that the effects of prolonged stress are extremely damaging. Now, along with the Big C, we are even more stressed. Stressed because of finances, our families, fear of loss of our jobs, our homes, fear of death, of our loved ones.
FEAR, FEAR, FEAR – this induces more stress, which conversely means that you are more vulnerable!
Scary stuff? Yes!
But……. You have the power to reduce it!
Yes I can hear you,
You are furloughed again. You don’t have enough money. You’re worried, constantly about your loved ones.
Living in fear and stress, in these current times is very hard on your mental and physical health. It is imperative that we try and eat well and not just grab snacks and coffee!
It is imperative, that we take time out to relax. It is imperative to turn off all the chatter about the current situation. You know the big C, as well as I, so please don’t sit listening to news bulletin after news bulletin on television and on the radio.
Put on a family film instead or a Disney film, so that you can all enjoy it together.
Change your outlook on what is happening – you are a free, thinking person – you could make this the time of your life!
Think of all the things you have wanted to do and haven’t been able to, because of having to go to that stressful job!
You could write that book you have always wanted to write. You could finish that drawing course, you brought ages ago but never had the time to do. What about the children’s bedrooms? You have been meaning to clear out the cupboards and the toy boxes.
Oh! Do you remember that thing you started knitting three years ago? Find it!!
What about the wood in the shed, that you brought two years ago to make a sand and water table for the kids? Or, the paint you brought ages ago, to gloss all the doors downstairs?
If you have children, try to ensure they still have fun, even if that is a game of hide and seek in the woods or in the park.
Play monopoly, play charades. Make bright colourful paintings with them. Laugh!!
What about utilising all the empty toilet rolls to make Christmas angels/fairies? There are many simple and creative ideas on a variety of social media sites.
Have a go at something you have never tried. E.g. Teach yourself to play the guitar. Learn something new, if you are very interested in particular subject, try an online course.
Even if you don’t have much money, try to buy healthy foods like vegetables and fruit, cheese and eggs, so you are all getting some nutrition. Utilise the fact that the supermarkets are constantly trying, to out do each other. If you are not working at the moment, check out (if it doesn’t cost you more in petrol), the offers in different supermarkets. Even leave the car at home and walk there if it’s not too far. Many supermarkets reduce the price later in the day/evening, if going out of date – worth a look! Buy it and freeze it or cook it there and then.
Do some silly things like jumping in puddles when it’s raining. Gather autumn leaves and make a collage of them. Kick the leaves up with your feet when you are out walking. Play hopscotch. Try skipping and if you have older children, you could take in turns and sing some silly songs as you skip.
If you are suffering mentally, from all the stress of the Big C, get support. I am a mental health nurse and in England, all the teams are still functioning. Many of us are still doing face to face, work with patients, especially if symptoms are severe.
Don’t worry alone, please ring. You can speak to a duty worker or request an assessment. At the very least someone will speak to you over the phone. Teams are busy, so if you don’t get through first time around, please don’t give up, try again.
There are also crisis teams available that you can ring in your area, as well as the Samaritans. Please don’t sit alone with this.
About the author
I am a freelance writer for hire, writing on matters of health, mental health, herbal medicine and wellbeing. I love writing and creativity. I am a Medical Herbalist, Psychiatric Nurse, Writer and artist.