Extreme Stress: Understanding the Body’s Response

Stress can have a myriad of effects on a person’s life that can include physical and mental problems. For those who have been exposed to a traumatic experience, extreme stress enters the picture and has a lasting effect on the body. One of the important things to know when going through such a situation is that a physical reaction to extremely stressful situations is normal and a full understanding of the physical impact of extreme stress can lead to more rapid healing. The brain plays a large part in this process as it receives information about the status of the world through the five senses. It also receives information about the status of things with the individual internally, including activities throughout the various nerves. All of this information travels through the spine to reach the brain, with its first stop at a ‘danger detection center’ which will determine whether that information is a danger or a threat. If the information is perceived to be a threat, it sets off a series of alarms and the body begins to protect itself. Everyone has the ability to either fight, flee or freeze when danger or a threat is detected and the intensity of the information can determine this outcome. With key physical changes, the body will engage in one of these protective moves. Such changes can include an increase in the breathing rate; a faster heart rate; higher blood pressure; increased muscle tension; increased pain tolerance and more. While the arrival of danger information can trigger these physical reactions, the opposite occurs when the threat is gone or has been significantly diminished. The body’s relaxation processes will kick into action and halt or reverse the bodily changes that prepared for protection. Research has shown this relaxation process takes nearly three minutes to return the body to a calmer and more balanced state. In a traumatic experience, this natural process lasts too long or is triggered too often. With prolonged or extremely intense exposure to the stress response causes damage in the creation of memories, the formation of emotions and with the immune system. Extreme stress situations can increase or decrease some elements of memory – creating visual memories where a scene is watched over and over or flashbacks and dreams consume the individual. In the long term, a person under extreme stress due to a traumatic event will often not remember how long the event lasted, but instead will remember the terror that was felt during the event. The sense of time is absent and leads to disorganized, non-chronological and fragmented memories that can be incomprehensible. These memories also tend to lack accompanying words that make it difficult or even impossible to talk or write about the experience leaving the survivor with a sense of terror that is speechless. When extreme stress is present, the individual also struggles with the management and formation of emotions as brain chemicals which are needed to calm and regulate emotions become more active and thus, more difficult to control. This increased state of emotional distress can keep the body’s stress response from fully turning off. Extreme stress also impacts the immune system, breaking it down and allowing the individual to be more susceptible to problems and illnesses. As a whole, extreme stress brought on by traumatic events can have a lasting impact on the individual, but overcoming these effects to return to what might be considered “normal” is possible when the individual understands the process involved in extreme stress. Once the process is defined, recovery is in view.

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