Surviving Stress

This little guy is in trouble. In just a few seconds, his worries will be over -- or he will be over. His entire body is engaged in the struggle to survive, helping him run faster and longer than ever before and working overtime to prepare him for a crisis. But is that extra energy enough to save his life?

Cave man

You probably haven't been chased by a hungry tiger hoping for his next meal, but even slightly threatening moments can cause lesser versions of the same reaction. Your body responds to stress whether you face a physical danger or psychological fear from public speaking, your first driving lesson, or a blind date.

Animals everywhere are engaged in this eat-or-be-eaten scenario, often with disastrous results. The tiger is also under stress and could be tired or slightly injured. If he doesn't get his next meal, he might not survive. The predator-prey dance is deadly serious, and both animals are focused entirely on what happens in the next few minutes.

new chase

Panthera leo


Here in Wisconsin, lions exist only in zoos and are not a threat. However, the deadly Panther leo is a significant problem in many parts of the world.

It doesn't matter who or what is chasing you if they're fast enough or hungry enough. Escaping with your life and body intact is all that matters.

Ursus actos


I've encountered several black bears in my kayaking and camping adventures. They are content to leave you alone if you make no surprise or sudden moves. On the other hand, the Ursis actos shown here are deadly and known to attack for no reason. As with all bears, they can run, climb, and swim faster than you. Fortunately, we've never made the acquaintance.

Animals large enough to consider you a possible breakfast or attack because they are frightened or protecting their young present a significant threat. All too common, however, is the most dangerous animal of all. Lurking around nearly every corner is the animal you face almost daily. You may have seen and narrowly escaped this threat on your way to work this morning.

Cellphonius idiotus

Not long ago, I was driving down Main Street in Spring Green, Wisconsin, to the General Store for lunch. A  person talking on a cell phone and paying no attention to driving blew past a stop sign and headed straight for the side of my car. 

New cellphone

I violently swerved and got out of the way, climbing the opposite curb and winding up with my car halfway on the sidewalk. No bent metal. No real damage was done. But this incident was far from over. While silently commenting on Cellphonius idotus, his driving abilities, and his possible lineage, I realized my body's reactions were far from ordinary. I was experiencing the full effects of the stress response.

Stress Response

The section of your brain that senses danger, the amygdala, can't differentiate between saber-tooth tigers and lousy drivers. The message is clear in either case: you are in trouble and need all the help you can get to survive. While my mishap on Main Street had little probability of a deadly outcome, this same behavior on the Interstate just a few blocks away could have been very different. So the amygdala was precisely correct.

As a result of this decision, adrenal glands burst forth with adrenalin and a dozen other hormones that signal every cell in your body to maximize your survival and drop everything else. The message is clear: temporarily suspend all unnecessary actions until the crisis is resolved.

You've probably been in a similar situation where your body kicks into high gear and prepares you for the fight of your life. Your heart races to get energy-rich blood to your arms and legs. Blood pressure rises in response to this demand. Lungs work overtime delivering vast quantities of oxygen to your bloodstream. And your senses are energized, helping you become more aware and alert to every detail.


It doesn't matter whether or not you need all these emergency measures to face the real or the imagined crisis. You are prepared for whatever happens next. After you've marshaled all available resources and are supplying your muscles with the energy they need to improve your strength and endurance, you can take one more action.

When focusing on survival and what happens in the next few minutes, you can gain additional resources by slowing down or eliminating various body functions and processes you don't need.

Remember, you're trying to stay alive NOW. Therefore, it's prudent to set aside those activities that can wait for a less critical time.


Digestion is one activity that you can postpone. While digesting food is the source of all your energy, this process is too slow to add anything to the current requirements. This is not the time to think about digesting lunch. It is the time to avoid becoming lunch. Tissue repair, growth, and reproduction can also be put off for now. There's plenty of time for these activities later -- if there is a later.

You may not remember how elated you were when a stress reaction helped you feel more robust than ever. Colors and sounds were more vivid. Pain may have been temporarily on hold -- as with the quarterback who sprints 50 yards for a touchdown, ignoring a badly sprained ankle. You were Superman, the Hulk, and Popeye high on spinach, prepared and ready for anything fate had put in your path.


But not for long and not for free. There are significant costs for every one of the changes brought about by the stress response. Costs are a calculated risk when your life is in danger --- and an incredible waste if stress is brought on by concerns over global warming, an IRS audit, or gaining a few pounds.

The overall effect on your immune system is significant. Stress damages this protection, leaving you more vulnerable to various infectious diseases.

While not the actual cause of many severe conditions, the adverse effects of stress on the immune system can make matters much worse and even more life-threatening.


Digestion takes a beating when delayed stomach lining repair sets the stage for ulcers. Likewise, a dry mouth when speaking in public is an early indicator of the digestive system's slowdown.

The most damaging effect of the stress response is its brutal attack on the entire cardiovascular system. The pounding on the arterial walls with increased blood pressure can cause micro-fissures in the lining. This happens at the worst possible time, while glucose, fat, and other nutrients are rushing by on the way to energize the muscles.

The result is a cardiovascular disease -- the number one killer in western medicine. Was it worth it? Was the stress response effective?

I'll close with this quote from Dr. Robert Sapolsky:

"To the extent that we are smart enough to have invented psychological stressors and then stupid enough to have fallen for them, we all have the potential to instead be wise enough to keep them in perspective."

Dr. Robert Sapolsky's book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers covers stress and health in much more detail than I've presented here. The YouTube of his Stanford lecture is a delight.

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers  -  Amazon

Robert Sapolsky  -  YouTube

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