Lack of balance

Stress is a state of imbalance between what is required and what is possible. In this way the stress concept is similar to concepts such as thirst or hunger – the feeling that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Stress is thus a shortage, a pathological condition that can be dangerous. Therefore, it is as meaningless to speak of good or positive stress as it is to speak of positive hunger or positive thirst.

Fortunately, our biology seems to be pretty well-equipped to deal with relatively large deviations from the norm. The first way to respond to stress is a frantic activity conducted by our cerebrum, which triggers our ability to solve problems. We try out all sorts of tricks – evoke feelings of guilt, play brave, show contempt, persuade. Or we try to be pragmatic to find a consistent solution to the problem, which is usually also the most successful way to act. You could say that our species great success is in part due to the fact that we are so good problem-solvers.

When the alarm goes off

It's only when rational attempts to get out of the pinch doesn't work, or when we feel that our existence or the most vital resources are being attacked, that our organism reacts with more biologically triggered, and extremely effective programs. These programs are controlled by an alarm system in our brain that can develop into fight-or-flight reactions.

Warning signals for the fight-or-flight reaction:

  • Sleep – difficulty falling asleep, restless sleep, many awakenings, nightmares, waking up early
  • Energy – hyperactivity, difficult to rest, restlessness
  • Emotions – irritability, aggression, fear, anxiety, panic disorder
  • The brain – too many thoughts, concentration difficulties, memory problems
  • The body – heart palpitations, gastrointestinal problems, muscle tension

In addition to the physiological throttle which allows the fight-or-flight reaction we also have an additional, and somewhat mysterious, way of responding that is mostly not linked to stress. Yet they hang together – it's called the freeze reaction. The freeze reaction is triggered when our brain determines that no other way out of the emergency is possible. Usually in this situation people feel a fatigue that is very difficult to rest away. The sleep problems have now gotten to the point where we can sleep forever and still wake up tired. We become paralyzed, passive and sad or depressed.

Warning signals for the freeze reaction:

  • Sleep – great need for sleep
  • Energy – overwhelming fatigue
  • Emotions – blues, sadness, depression
  • The brain – emptiness, no daydreaming, memory problems
  • The body – hypersensitivity to pain, the result of consolation needs

The freeze behavior is more dangerous than fight or flight, where we're still trying to do something about the tense situation. By freezing we however shut down, and if we end up there the passive, slightly depressed state can hang around for long, which actually often contributes to problems getting worse rather than solved.

No matter what reaction your brain chooses to use, we become sick from stress if we get stuck in our reactions over a long period of time. Stress also makes us older. Our basic functions are disturbed and it is easy to get stuck in one mode.