Stress and the Stress-Response System 

There are two types of stress – general stress and chronic stress. Everyone experiences stress. My dog, Ricco, is not exception.

We are built with a stress response system – fight or flight – to help us survive. Within the fraction of a second when we perceive a threat, resources in our blood are channelled to our muscles – getting us ready for fight or take flight. Thus, the usual distribution of resources for growth, reproduction and digestion cease. It makes sense, because if we can’t even survive an immediate threat, what is the use of the rest of the functions? We are built to strategize the use of resources.

Such a threat-stress-response system has enabled the human species to survive. Take our forefathers from eons ago as an example. One fine morning, he is walking across the plains towards the river. This is his usual path. Suddenly, across the horizon, he notices a lion – a rare sighting. He has been walking this path but has never come across any danger until this moment. In that fraction of a second, the eye sends a signal to the brain. Immediately, the stress centre of the brain – amygdala – goes on red alert, triggering off a threat alarm that sets in motion a chain of events. Now the body is all tensed up ready for fight or flight.

A Day in the Life of Ricco v.s. Ours

Ricco, my dog, is on high alert twice a day – during his walks. He pants harder and becomes skittish. While he looks forward to his walks, he is also highly cautious of his surroundings and the ensuing danger.

Quite a few times, he walks too close to a cat and the snarl makes him jump away. He loves to sniff dogs (and cats too) but he is also ready to dart when he senses that the dog is about to nip at him.

Besides cats and dogs, he also has to pay attention to the road, the cars, the occasional electric scooters that zoom pass him, the people, and the barrage of smells that comes his way. Twice a day, while on his walks, he is at his happiest, yet he is also at his most alert state – ready to fight or take flight. (That being said, Ricco is not much a fighter. He is the calmest rescued dog that I’ve come across. Even when another dog tries to attack him, he will just dart away.)

After those moments of high alert, he will go home to a safe environment where he will have a good meal, laze around (naughtily on my bed if I’m not at home), and sleep. Only twice a day, for at most two hours, his threat-stress-response system is on alert.

Up until not so long ago, our forefathers also had very little of these threat-stress-response moments. For those whom have experienced staying in a farm, you will know what I mean. Think about the agricultural periods. How often would one experience such a threat-stress-response moment? Perhaps only when a tiger (in this part of the world) roams into our fields.

As we proceed through the industrial era, where work could be fairly monotonous, such threat-stress-response moments wouldn’t have been a common thing too. Even when the work environment poses to be stressful, once we passed the working hours, we are able to rest. Furthermore, before the telephone came about, no one would be able to contact us until we turn up at work the next day. Letters took days or weeks. Being disconnected was a norm.

However, in today’s world, our threat-stress-response system is constantly on alert. A bad traffic jam can send our blood pressure rising. Not to mention the times when we are trying to get onto a crowded train so as not to be late for that “super” important meeting, or during the times when we realise that there are 200 emails waiting to be read. Or that reminder message from our boss.

We now live in a world that is highly connected (and competitive). The stakes are high. Being late for a meeting seems to have an impact on our promotion, which may means that we might get stuck at the bottom of the ladder. The only way out is to climb faster than everyone else.

While we are at work for the next 12 hours when our threat-stress-response system is on high alert, Ricco is resting away. Sometimes, he playfully shifts his toys around. Other times, he will climb onto my bed and snuggle into a comfortable position. (He knows I don’t like it and he will never do that when I’m around.) Sometimes when he’s really bored, he will bite the buttons off my duvet cover. He will wile away the hours resting and playing while we the rest of us at work are battling with every perceivable threat there is.

Getting Home After A Long Day of Work  

Finally, we make it back home. It is also Ricco’s happiest moment. It means that it is time for his walk. He gets into his high alert mode and his threat-stress-response system is ready to be triggered.

While Ricco is happily enjoying his walk, some of us could still be ruminating over that rude email that was received on our way home. Because it is perceived as a threat, the stress centre triggers a barrage of responses, which includes channelling significant resources in the blood for a – in this case – fight response. Up till now, the damaged cells in our body haven’t received sufficient resources for repair. The digestive system hasn’t got enough resources to properly digest even the breakfast. The shoulder and neck muscles are extremely tensed up. The heart has been pumping wildly away since the start of the day, with only short periods of respite.

While our mind is still processing that threat from work and our body is busily responding to it, we receive a message from our partner asking us to pick up some groceries on our way back. It is a simple request and we would have gladly done it. But it has been a bad day and the message came at a time when we are in the midst of our fight. We unknowingly reply impatiently – triggering off yet another fight with our partner.

Suddenly, a dog comes up from behind Ricco. That startles him, triggering his stress response. The dog barks at Ricco. Being himself, Ricco pulls me away. His bouncy ears drop, evidently upset by the incident. He walks on. Not before long, he meets another dog. This time the familiar smell reminds him that it is not a threat. His ears edge up with excitement.

After a heart-racing period for both Ricco and us, we finally get back home. Ricco pants away while I clean him up. He gets excited as I lay out his dinner, and slurps everything up hungrily. Soon after dinner, he finds his favourite mat and lays down to rest.

Ricco doesn’t seem to show any sign that he is still upset with the dog that barked at him earlier. However, that email that angered us still continues to be replayed over and over again on our mind. Because it keeps us awake, we are fired up to draft a response even though the body is telling us that we need a rest. Finally, by midnight, we are somewhat satisfied with that latest version of our email response. We click the send button. Just at that moment, blood pressure spikes. A punch has been returned.

It is difficult to fall asleep having thrown the punch this late at night. The mind is occupied with all the possible responses that might come back our way while the body is pumped up with adrenalin. After some tossing and turning, we finally fall asleep. But, very soon after, the alarm clock rings. We feel worse than before we slept.

For only that few hours when we manage to fall asleep, resources in our blood are being channelled from our fight response to the repair and growth of our cells. At the rate we are going, the repair can’t catch up with the damage.

Meanwhile, through all of this, Ricco has been sleeping away like a baby. Quite a stark contrast to our sleep.

This is the world we are now in. With unprecedented connectivity, comes unprecedented stress triggers. And because time is a finite entity, these ballooning stress triggers keep eating away whatever time the body has left for repair and growth. This eventually builds up into chronic stress. Hence, it is no surprise that chronic stress is a risk factor for heart disease, depression, anxiety issues, obesity, gastrointestinal issues, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s.

Looking at Ricco, I can’t help but wonder could a dog’s life to be better off in our modern day world? Well, the answer could be subjective, but the idea is pretty clear. We need a balance. The fight and flight system along with the rest and repair system are both necessary for our survival. We have a choice whether some of the stuff are really worth us sweating over? And every time when we decide to activate that fight and flight response, we need to know that it comes at a cost of something else.

 

Ricco is Happiness Initiative’s first ever full time hire.

He serves as the Head of Public Relations and has been doing a great job showing others what choices they can make to be happier.