Stress response mechanisms enable us to adopt the best behavior possible when faced with a life threatening danger. Knowing that our species appeared about 200,000 years ago, it is clear that the dangers we face today are not at all related to those for which we were formed. It is considered that 90% of the stressful situations we experience are more related to the perception we have of our environment rather than the actual danger it represents.
In all animals, faced with immediate danger, three responses to stress follow one another, always in the same order: flight to escape the danger; fight if it is not possible to escape, and inhibition if one is ultimately not able to defend oneself. In humans it appears that certain responses to stress are given priority according to our learning. Being able to identify the symptoms of these different responses to stress is valuable to understand what drives some behaviors, whether in ourselves or in those around us. Note that words are not specifically indicative of a state of stress. It is much more relevant to rely on behavioral observation.
The flight response state is characterized by an increased heart rate and blood flow to the extremities of the body to facilitate fleeing. This results in sweating, blushing, trembling, uncoordinated stamping, a quavering voice or a shifty look. To optimize the flight, the feeling of not being in one’s place increases along with a greater sensitivity to hostile attitudes. Thoughts keep trotting out: “why did I agree to do this, I’d be better off elsewhere, I want to ditch everything…”
The fight response state is characterized by tensing the upper shoulders, neck, jaw and face to impress the opponent. The neck is stretched, increasing the intensity of the voice with a fixed stare. Facing the other person, who is perceived as a threat, the feeling of being assaulted, being in the right and being right are strengthened and it becomes impossible to let go.
The last response state, which we have already mentioned, is inhibition. Unable to flee or fight, the body seems to abandon to its fate. The heart slows down, the body tends to sag, to withdraw into itself, as if under the weight of severe fatigue. The voice is weak and the eyes stare at the ground. A strong sense of despondency and feeling of loneliness lead to a lack of motivation. Thoughts turn to: “its not worth the trouble, I don’t feel like doing this anymore, I’m fed up…”
As you can see, the states of stress don’t act solely on the body. They also interact with our emotions and influence our feelings to guide our thoughts and actions for our survival. In a non-life threatening situation, such as public speaking, it is important to recognize these thoughts as a result of stress and not as a logical and rational thought process to which we must obey.