Stress is omnipresent — it is a part of our existence. It is also akin to the fire alarm that goes off when it senses a threat or a potential hazard. This relates to the good, old fight-or-flight response — the in-built siren that “works” at the drop of a mental, or emotional, perception that something is awry. What happens next is predictable — your heart begins to pump blood to the limbs, your blood pressure levels soar to gush blood to the large muscle groups, you sweat profusely to cool your body temperature and “up” your stress hormone levels, such as epinephrine and cortisol, to propel sugar and free fatty acids into the blood stream for your energy levels to reach the crescendo. This is the raison d’être for our pristine physiological phenomenon, the template that champions the essence of our physical survival in times of danger, or imaginary “ghosts” in the precincts of our mind.

The fight-or-flight response is literally our “in-waiting-to-engage” mental toolkit that we are all endowed with, especially in the face of a challenge, be it covert or overt, trivial or major. This can range, right from the rush-hour traffic, when you are in a hurry to reach your workplace, or running your firewall to quell the Trojan in your computer, to filing your tax returns just in time. It upholds the connection that exists between stress, health and illness, aside from its cumulative effects on our psyche.

Stress is as old as time. Our ancients, more so philosophers, knew of its import through reason, unlike us, thanks to our high-tech progress and advance. Plato proposed the idea that our mind consists of three interwoven parts: 1. the intellect, the seat of reasoning and logic; 2. the spiritual centre of the mind; and, 3. dictated emotions and feelings, besides the element that governs desires and appetites. He suggested that a healthy mind would always discover the balance between the three parts, while any excess dependence on the troika would lead to the expression of personality, or letting desires, such as egoism and greed, govern behaviour. This is precisely the reason why we are all “hardwired” for stress.  

Plato also articulated the idea that we were mere spectators, “not captains of our soul,” as Epictetus, the stoic philosopher, expressed — this translates to how little we control in life. Epictetus underlined the principle that most of our emotional tangles emerge when we are too keyed up to exert total control over external factors. This makes us feel anxious, stressed out, helpless, fearful, reactive and obsessed. His prescription: focus on your beliefs and thoughts. This will make you strong and in charge of your beliefs.

His sublime view is just as valid today, albeit the use of modern technology has, yet again, unveiled long-hidden, surreptitious contexts of brain physiology in layman’s terms, including what exactly happens during the stress response, viz., the surge of stress hormones that impedes new brain cell growth. Add to this the scientific mapping of precise areas of the brain responsible for emotional thought processing and/or specific effects of stress hormones, one gets to “plumb” the complex association that exists between our brain and the endocrine (hormonal) system.

What does this primal and fundamental adaptability spoor connote? That positive health and wellness is nothing but a conscious response to stress and the manifestation of healthy behaviours, such as adequate sleep, good eating habits, exercise, harmonious relationships, relaxation techniques, and living a balanced life.

(The writer is a wellness physician, independent researcher and author)

Rajgopal Nidamboor