How Stress Impacts Physical Health: Fight or Flight in the 21st Century

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How Stress Impacts Physical Health - Fight or Flight in the 21st Century

In my last blog post over at Advising the Advisors, I talked about how stress forms. Although most people view stress as the result of specific negative events in their lives, stress is actually not formed by these events but rather how you interpret them. A negative event can trigger a series of negative thought patterns, and when you get caught in these tangents you, yourself, create your own stress.

Fortunately, we are capable of changing our thought patterns. With every event we encounter we make choices about how we interpret the event (whether we realize it or not). By becoming mentally aware of how we interpret events, we can reduce and even eliminate stress in our lives. Saying goodbye to stress means living a happier, more productive and fulfilling life.

However, a focus on mental health does more than just reduce stress. Actually, this reduction in stress will improve your physical health as well. Let me explain how stress impacts physical health by first taking a look at fight or flight in the 21st century.

Fight or Flight in the 21st Century

Think back to the last biology class you took and you might remember an idea called the fight or flight response. This is a biological system that originated back in early human history when physical threats were abundant. A sudden noise, for example, would trigger the fight or flight alarm system to go off in your brain. This stress response would make us more vigilant so we could protect our own lives. If a hungry tiger was lurking around the corner, we were primed to process that information quickly and make the right choice (fight or flight) so we wouldn’t end up as dinner.

Our fight or flight response still works in the 21st century, but the things we respond to are a lot different than when the system was first developed. Many of us live in safe environments, so we don’t have to worry about being devoured by a predator. However, events in our lives can still trigger the fight or flight alarm system. Our subconscious mind doesn’t know if this is a life-threatening event or not, but it is not going to take any chances. If we interpret the event as a threat, we create stress and flip the switch that turns on the fight or flight nervous system.

How Stress Impacts Physical Health

The fight or flight response has not changed much from our early days. Our body physically tenses up as we prepare to flee or to battle. We become hyper-vigilant and on edge.  And our other systems shut down or become minimized so we can expend our energy in fight or flight mode.

All of these things impact our physical health:

  • Anxiety and tension can raise blood pressure and make you susceptible to heart disease and other illnesses.
  • Our hyper-vigilant state means it is hard to sleep and can bring about insomnia.
  • Our immune system is minimized during the fight or flight response, making us more receptive to illness with a decreased ability to fight that illness off.

This demonstrates how stress can have a physical impact on our bodies, and how reducing stress can improve our physical health. In fact, the American Medical Association has admitted that ‘gatekeepers’ in the medical community (such as family practice doctors and internists) say that 2 out of 3 of their clients don’t have a physical disease. They do have real symptoms, but these symptoms are caused by some kind of stress. They run busy practices so the most efficient procedure is to treat the symptoms. However, what we really need to do is deal with the original cause of these symptoms – stress and our ability to manage it.

Knowing how stress impacts physical health, every individual who wants to live a happier and healthier life should focus on their mental well-being. Not only is it possible to reduce your stress by changing how you interpret events, but in doing so you can also improve your physical health.

Dr. Jack Singer


Author and professional speaker Dr. Jack Singer is a licensed Clinical, Sports and Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, author, trainer and consultant. His expertise includes a Doctorate in Industrial / Organizational Psychology and a Post-Doctorate in Clinical / Sports Psychology.

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