The Stress Response – Learn to Recognize It – Learn to Manage It

One very important step in taking control of your life is the management and mastery of the stress response. The stress response, also known as the “fight or flight response,” has been a major part of our make-up since the cave man days. It serves the vital role of compelling us to fight fiercely or flee quickly when a dangerous situation puts us in jeopardy. 

When a person perceives that a circumstance is perilous, that message is swiftly conveyed to the hypothalamus, a non-thinking part of the brain that activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Many changes occur in the body when the SNS is engaged. Blood pressure and heart rate increase, breathing moves from the diaphragm to the chest and blood flow shifts to the large muscles and to the brain, away from the stomach and the extremities, restricting digestion and causing the hands and feet to become cold. Muscles tighten in readiness to run or fight. Pupils dilate, the mouth becomes dry and erections become inhibited. The immune system and tissue repair are restricted.


This is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the species. By redirecting and heightening the body’s activity, blood flow and energy, the person in crisis has the resources to run fast or fight hard, increasing the likelihood of staying alive. The changes that occur put the body into a very uncomfortable and demanding state. Should this huge drain become chronic, serious physiological and psychological problems often manifest.


Just as nature equipped us with a nervous system to survive calamity, it also equipped us with a nervous system to maintain a state of calm: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The characteristics or actions of the PNS are largely the opposite of the SNS, and for all intents and purposes, when one is engaged, the other is disengaged. Thus, the goal of stress management is to harness the methods that promote a state of calm and that inhibit the stress response. The following strategies have been widely researched and shown to be effective:




What you do to manage the world outside you can go a long way in reducing your susceptibility to the stress response. These techniques include: 

  • Practicing assertiveness
  • Reducing, eliminating or learning to react differently to stressors
  • Improving communication
  • Eliminating self-defeating behaviors
  • Having clear goals
  • Managing time in positive ways

Internal Psychological

Keep in mind that the message sent to the hypothalamus may be one about an actual threat or about a perceived, benign threat. You are served well by the stress response when you are actually in danger. You are not served well when you trick yourself. So the following strategies help you make the distinction: 

  • Cognitive Restructuring
  • Distraction
  • Disputing
  • Having Rational Beliefs versus Irrational Beliefs
  • Appropriate Expectations

Internal Physiological


There are calming techniques that tell the brain you are not in trouble. These can be used to disengage the response or on an ongoing basis to prevent it from being elicited:

  • Breathing
  • Imagery Relaxation
  • The Relaxation Response
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation
  • Insight Meditation
  • Biofeedback
  • Hypnosis  

Recommended Readings


Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R.,McKay, M. and Fanning, P. (2008) The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook

McKay, M., Davis, M. and Fanning, P. (2007) Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life


More information on managing stress can be found in my book on Positive Psychology, It’s Your Little Red Wagon… Six Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life (Embrace the Power of Positive Psychology and Live Your Dreams!).


Copyright 2009. Sharon S. Esonis, Ph.D.

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