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Understanding the body’s fight-or-flight response

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On the occasion of International Stress Awareness Week, which runs till Nov 5, Dr. Saliha Afridi discusses the body’s fight-or-flight response in detail.

Our nervous system cannot differentiate whether we are being chased by a lion or a work deadline. When we are stressed, whether from work, relationships, negative thoughts or poor sleep, the reaction in the body will be the same. And most people do not realize the impact of these daily stressors on the body’s nervous system. The body’s stress response has evolved over thousands of years as a survival mechanism and now as a result our body goes into a fight-or-flight response, also known as the stress response.

The science behind “Stress”

When the stress response kicks in our mind, it sends a signal to the brain to release a cascade of stress hormones in the body. The body then activates and sends energy to certain parts to ensure survival and shuts off energy to other parts that are not necessary at that moment. In the lion or work deadline example, when being chased by a lion, in the short term energy is sent to our limbs, and diverted away from our digestive system or growth hormone, because we do not need those systems to be working while we are being chased by a lion. However, unlike being chased by a lion i.e., short-term stress, our day-to-day work life is medium-term or even constant stress in some cases, which means most of us are living in a mild to moderate state of fight-or-flight all the time, which is causing havoc on our mental and physical wellbeing.

Can this be avoided? The answer is yes, read on…

There are many activities that contribute to a strong and resilient mind and body that could potentially help us push back our daily stressors. While some could be considered as good-to-do on a daily basis while on other hand some are quite mandatory – which means if you aren’t doing these activities, then the stress could pile up and as a result, you are less likely to feel your best.

The top three mandatory activities that I would list are - good sleep, exercise, and mindfulness exercises. Advanced wearables, like Fitbit, these days have built-in sensors that can give us biofeedback about our body’s stress response and what we need to be doing to optimize our overall wellbeing.

Here are some facts around my list of three activities:

Sleep: The idea that sleep is just a time when our body ‘rests’ is a bit outdated.

  • ​​​​​Sleep is the single most effective thing you can do for your brain and body. If you are not getting 7-8 hours of good quality sleep, you are considered sleep-deprived.
  • Not all sleep is created equal—deep restorative sleep is different from REM sleep, and you need both to be able to function at your best.
  • And we know for sure that sleep is good for physical health to recuperate, but sleep is also very good for mental health to be regulated. For example, if you do not get sufficient sleep your amygdala (which is your fight-or-flight reactive centre) is 60 per cent more activated. That means no matter how much you know about managing your stress, it won’t matter because you aren’t able to access that information due to a more reactive amygdala.

Exercise: Some say sitting is the “new smoking” and moving is key to a strong and resilient mind and body.

As commonly known, if you are sedentary, you are more likely to have physical and mental health problems compared to if you follow a 150 mins weekly active zone minutes target. For those with a sedentary lifestyle, the popular Dubai Fitness Challenge has just kicked off last weekend and it can help you redefine your routine, motivate you to get 30 mins of exercise daily. The popular Fitbit rebounder area is in place once again, where participants can achieve their daily 30-minute activity goal by joining a fun and socially distanced trampoline class.

  • ​​​​​​Exercise has neuroprotective and cognitive benefits, especially pertaining to memory and learning-related processes.
  • It has antidepressant effects and counteracts disease, age-related mental impairment, and atrophy, such as Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Contrary to the age-old notion that the number of neurons in the brain remains static after prenatal and neonatal development—new neurons can be generated in the adult brain via a process known as neurogenesis. This phenomenon has been linked to exercise.

Mindfulness exercises:  Last but not the least, mindfulness exercises are a mandatory and non-negotiable practice that I recommend in order to manage and reduce stress.

I have come across some interesting, advanced smartwatches and fitness trackers that go beyond tracking your steps and include tools for measurement of stress, skin temperature and much more than traditional wearables. Devices such as the Fitbit Sense and Charge 5 also come with an EDA – electrodermal activity sensor that measures the perspiration on your hands which go up in times of stress. Basically, it will look at your ‘ fight-or-flight response in the body (also referred to as the sympathetic nervous system activation) and is one of the most sensitive and valid markers of stress, which a regular practice of meditation can help manage.

Some devices also feature tracking of Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which tells you how resilient your body is and how much time you are spending in the fight-or-flight mode.

  • Higher HRV variability - which is at times misunderstood, is actually a positive attribute that is associated with reduced morbidity and mortality, and improves psychological well-being and quality of life.
  • Low HRV, on the other hand, means that you are in a sympathetically dominant fight state, with high-stress hormone levels even when you are at a resting or dormant stage. This could be very taxing on the body and could result in various mental and physical health problems.

Another new Premium only feature that I have recently come across on Fitbit’s wearable devices is the Daily Readiness Score - which is a composite score that combines your activity, sleep and HRV over time to reveal each day if you are ready to exercise or should prioritise recovery.

Wearables have advanced over the years and are now equipped to demonstrate how small changes in our daily habits could have a big impact on the overall stress in our mind and body.

International Stress Awareness Week was created in 2018 to raise awareness about stress prevention and is being observed from Nov 1 to 5 this year. Let’s start observing our individual activity, sleep and mindfulness habits and ultimately try to redefine our routines to improve our overall physical and mental wellbeing.

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Dr. Saliha Afridi

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