The truth about stress

After the threat has passed, though, the body utilizes another system, the relaxation response.

by Dr. Barbara Hare — 

Stress is the body’s alarm system. It is a physiological reaction to a threat in the environment. You might be familiar with the term “fight-or-flight response,” which means that when confronted with a threat, the brain instantaneously triggers a release of stress hormones, which in turn create a series of physiological changes.

These changes are designed to allow the body to hold still, fight or run away from the threat. Increased heart rate, sweating, muscle tension and alertness are all parts of this response. In a life-threatening situation, such behavior is beneficial. You have experienced these benefits when a car pulled out in front of you unexpectedly.

After the threat has passed, though, the body utilizes another system, the relaxation response. The problem is that the body requires sufficient time to calm down between fight-or-flight and relaxation. In our hectic world, we rarely have time to relax after one alert has passed before another threat arises. And, of course, the body’s natural response is sometimes socially inappropriate — you cannot hit your supervisor and then run away.

The outcome is that we rarely return to that relaxed state; rather, the stress load slowly rises, such that mild or moderate stress becomes our new relaxed state. This new baseline results in a near-constant cascade of stress hormones and physical symptoms, such as insomnia, headaches and muscle tension. If the stress goes on long enough, it creates emotional and cognitive symptoms, which might include chronic worry or poor concentration.

But there is hope. You can learn to create the relaxation response. The simplest and most accessible way is through diaphragmatic breathing, also known as deep breathing.

Try this. Lie down in a comfortable place. Put one hand on your chest, and one on your stomach, below your navel. Inhale for a count of four. The hand on your abdomen should rise first, followed by the hand on your chest. Exhale through the mouth for a count of eight.

Try it for one minute, three times a day. Remember, stress is an automatic response, which is induced every day. To counteract that response, we must also consciously induce relaxation every day.


Barbara Hare, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Phoenix. She specializes in teaching young professionals how to be both successful and happy. 623-363-8747 or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 26, Number 1, February/March 2007.

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