Following a stressful episode, our body will enter the so-called “compensation mode” so that it can go back to a desirable balance. The body has suffered an intense chemical challenge and begins its repair mode. Cortisol, a steroid hormone derived from cholesterol, will start an anti-inflammatory activity and will help to restore the depleted energy sources, together with aiding with the delivery of white blood cells to any injured area. Cortisol also assists with other internal functions to bring the event to the long-term memory for future reference – a process also known as stress-enhanced memory.
The stress response is biphasic, that is, the system meets short-term stress by increasing certain responses including immunological functions. Sustained stress, unresolved traumas and failure to adapt could seriously impair cognitive functions, affect our immune system and eventually create cellular and metabolic damage. In short, the process designed to save our lives in moments of real or emotionally perceived danger is also corrosive and damaging to both our body and mind. In modern societies, one does not have to go hunting for ferocious animals that can take our life in a split second. Our fight-and-flight response acts as a defence system to both real and perceived threats where the latter is a consequence of our thought process that may perceive any emotional alert as a real and urgent threat.
We have a self regulating system
The self-regulating mechanism that seeks to restore order after stressful events is often referred to as “homeostasis”, a word, which suggests that the body has a set internal state to which it must return to maintain balance and health. One definition for dynamic health may be our ability to respond to challenges and the speed we regain homeostasis.
Animal studies show that encounters with predators in the wild triggers much the same physiological response as humans experience when facing acute stress – real or emotional. A stressful episode in the animal world is often accompanied by a rush of endorphin, presumably to minimize the pain of being torn apart which sometimes is followed by immobility – the freeze alternative to the fight-or-flight response. Should the prey escape, something interesting occurs: escaping from an ultimate death causes the animal to stay frozen for a while and then being seized by a series of tremors that may mimic the act of running away, followed by a series of uncontrollable muscle spasms. After a few moments, the animal will go back to his normal existence almost as if nothing has happened. As far as we know, these events do not cause the animal any stress-related organ issues, or long-term psychosis and consequent need to end up on a psychiatrist’s couch.
Animals quickly release stress
Ethnologists now agree that the animal fast recovery from these events is due to their ability to quickly release stress; failure to dissipate this emotional charge or even carrying it for longer periods may result in mental and body damage, together with potential internal dysfunctions.
The Russian-born Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine concluded that energetic challenges (such as stress) drive the system effectively until it reaches a point of maximum tolerance. This rise of our immune response reaches a point where this system either collapses in growing disorder or dissipates enough energy to safely return to homeostasis. The same way our brain keeps storing life-threatening events – or perceived ones such as strong negative emotions – for future reference, it can also store reinterpretations of the same emotional events by detaching their emotional charge and link a valuable lesson to that memory. Unresolved incidents stored in our memory banks keep popping into our conscience screen only to be dragged back into unconscious storage until the day we are able to deal with them and release the associated emotional charge – the so called “let-go process”.