Fight, flight, or freeze: 8 ways stress can ruin your body

stress adverse effects

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

What would you do to a saber-toothed tiger?

To understand stress let us go back to the era of cavemen.

The cavemen lived in the dense jungles or took shelter in caves. Unlike the modern-day landscape which is dotted with concrete buildings, the prehistoric landscape was marked by predators.

Imagine yourself being up against a saber-toothed tiger.

You don’t have sophisticated weapons to fight against it. The beast has all the strength to pin you down.

You start feeling nervous- palms sweating, beads of sweat dripping down your temples, and increased palpitations. This racing heart-beat and a sudden rush of energy is nothing but your body’s natural response to danger.

In simple words, we call this event as stress.

Fight, flight, or freeze?

Under stress, our body can stick to any one of these states – it can either choose to fight the stressor, flight or escape from the scene, or in the worst case scenario, freeze.

All these three are nothing but how our body is designed to deal with stress. Now you have to realize that the race of human beings didn’t face extinction in spite of regular interactions with wild predators.

The main reason was that our ancestors mastered the art of handling stress, by either fighting or escaping the stress-causing agent.

Biologically speaking, the event of stress triggers the release of certain hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

These hormones prepare our body to fight stress by stopping other unnecessary biological processes such as digestion or libido.

And this is a good thing.

Stress prepares our body in the face of risky events by providing us with a rush of energy and focus. Our body’s keen sensitivity to stress is one of the critical factors that have ensured our survival since millions of years.

The good, the bad, and the ugly stress

If stress has helped our race survive the odds posed by nature, why do people always talk about stress as if it were a negative thing?

Going by the anthropological evidence, stress seems to be a good thing. But only because in those days it was short-lived and momentary. Fighting dangerous predators was not a 9 to 5 job for the cavemen. It happened rarely and for a brief period of time.

Stress was good.

Now, coming back to the modern age.

The saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths have perished.

They are no longer a cause of stress.

What has taken place of these predators are pressing schedules, looming deadlines, balancing work and personal life, handling finances and many more.

And sadly enough, these stressors have become an indelible part of our lifestyle. So anything that stresses us puts our body in danger for a substantial period of time.

Stress is now bad.

Stress puts our vital biological processes on hold to supply blood to our muscles.

For the stress, digestion, fertility, metabolism, cognition, growth and similar bodily functions are not important. So it hinders them, and mind you, for longer durations.

Stress has become ugly.

What does this mean for your body?

When vital bodily functions take a backseat and your body is ruled by adrenaline and cortisol- bad things begin to unfold. Adrenaline production triggers a chain of metabolic reactions. It inhibits insulin production which in turn raises our blood sugar level.

Adrenaline also increases the production of fatty acids, the rate of heartbeat, contraction of blood vessels, and dilation of air pathways.

That is the reason why most people start hyperventilating in stressful situations.

Cortisol also follows a similar pattern. In normal amounts, cortisol is good for your body as it regulates many metabolic functions. But heightened cortisol levels for prolonged periods can wreak havoc on your overall health.

This means that prolonged exposure to stress is something our body hasn’t been designed to experience. Any form of stress that is not momentary, like predatory attacks, is considered unnatural and unhealthy.

Below mentioned facts reveal in detail the horrifying effects of stress on your body.

1. Targeting the vital organs

The most immediate signal of surmounting stress is rapid breathing and palpitations. These signals put undue pressure on the cardiovascular system.

Increased heartbeat is the reason behind hypertension or high blood pressure. Be it regular day-to-day stress such work or money or a sudden attack of stress due to a trauma – stress can bring forward hazardous conditions like angina or even stroke.

These cardiovascular events can deteriorate blood flow which has a direct impact on the lungs.

Stress is often associated with worsening of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) symptoms.

In addition to these, poor blow flow also impairs the functioning of the liver. Stress can increase liver inflammation and even begin to destroy liver cells.

A majority of patients have complained flaring up of Hepatitis C symptoms during periods of prolonged stress. All in all, stress can cause irreversible damage to the functioning of our vital organs.

2. Is stress = cancer?


If not exactly equal, stress can lead to the creation of situations where cancer cells thrive.According to recent studies, chronic stress and anxiety might be the reasons behind the activation of the gene ATF3. The ATF3 gene can throw the immune cells out of whack. The same immune cells which ward off cancerous growth in our body.

Due to ATF3, the malignant cells now find an easy way to travel through our body and corrupt the healthy cells.

What this implies is that a stress-induced body “invites” cancer.

Scientists have observed high pre-existing levels of stress in patients with prostate cancer and breast cancer.

Moreover, a stress-ridden person often engages himself/herself in substance abuse such as uncontrolled drinking and smoking which also adds to the probability of developing cancer.

3. Stress and self-harm

stress statistics

It is clear that stress affects our body at a neurochemicals level.

When neurochemicals changes occur in our body, they often lead to changes in behavior.

One of the biggest indicators of stress is heightened anxiety which could weaken our “coping mechanism”.

The coping mechanism is our mental ability to withstand periods of intense pressure and stress.

With prolonged stress wrecking havoc on the brain, people often resort to self-destructive habits such as substance abuse or even self-harm.

Many people find it impossible to calm their nerves through usual methods such as talking it out or distracting themselves with work.

No amount of soothing words brings any sort of change. For them, self-harm and suicide often seem as the only hope to be free from the mental agony. Self-harm is a drastic and an extreme response to stress.

Yet for many people, it becomes the only mechanism that gives them immediate respite.

4. The 9-to-5 debacle

most stressful jobs

Be it downsizing, cost-cutting, mergers, bankruptcies – our work-life is replete with stressors.

If not these, then the ever-increasing workload, handling multiple-roles, or working in unfamiliar (and sometimes hostile) environment can be the sole reason for stress.

The relation of job demands and stress is so strong that in many countries heart attacks during duty is categorized as a work-related injury.

1 out of every 4 people feels that work is the primary source of stress in their life.

According to the APA (American Psychological Association), 75% of people were found to have medium to high levels of stress due to work. Many of them reported of wanting to scream or becoming violent in the workplace setting. All these scary figures point to just one thing – our jobs are making us dangerously stressed.

The kind of stress that is making us become more intolerant, brash, and even physically violent.

5. Poor eggs; fewer sperms

stress and infertility

The alarming rate at which the urban fertility rates are falling can be traced back to high-stress levels in city-dwellers.

As mentioned earlier, a stressed body is oozing with adrenaline and cortisol.

These two hormones are champions in inhibiting the release of GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone).

A deficiency of GnRH reduces the production of sex hormones which ultimately leads to lower libido in both the genders.

In men, stress can translate into lower sperm count and lower sperm motility.

In women, it could suppress ovulation and may also create a negative feedback loop between LH (Luteinizing hormone) and FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone). Such hormones often de-prioritize reproductive processes and in the long-term bring in the curse of infertility.

6. Corroding the immunity shield

When substances such as cortisol and corticosteroids remain in our systems for long, they increase the release of cytokines. Cytokines are the inflammation-inducing bodies.

High cytokine number could mean the advent of persisting inflammations (chronic) and even auto-immune diseases.  They could increase your risk of contracting rheumatoid arthritis, coronary heart diseases, gastrointestinal disorders, fibromyalgia and even lupus.

Stress has a direct impact on our immune systems. It can easily infiltrate the line of defense set up by our lymph nodes and lymphoid organs (thymus, spleen, and bone marrow).

With this natural set-up corroded or destroyed by stressors, pathogens find an easy route to invade our body. It indeed makes us more susceptible to a massive range of infections and inflammations. Be it the frequent cold-and-flu routine or dreadful cancer.

7. A frequent case of the blues

Studies have revealed a strong link between how our immune and nervous interact and our overall emotional well-being.

The sad news is that stress impacts both.

The result is a series of unhealthy emotional and behavioral transformations within an individual. A person with chronic stress will often feel sapped out of energy and enthusiasm.

Habitual patterns of such behavior will soon grow into depression.

These will, in turn, invite a host of other undesirable traits such as decreased appetite, unhealthy weight changes, aggressiveness, irritability, and a general sense of feeling down.

In addition to these, stress is identified to be the primary reason for the onset of Bipolar Disorder, Manic Depression, and prolonged Anxiety. To cut the long story short, stress can have major and sometimes irreversible effects on your mental health too.

8. Stress and your fetus

Studies have established a strong link between the presence of harmful external conditions such as maternal stress and infection with a high probability of autism, ADHD, and other mental conditions in the baby.

Even as early as the first trimester, the unborn baby is exposed to stress-related hormones of the mother. These have a severe effect on the unborn baby’s cognitive and neurological development.

The result could be the onset of dysfunctional behavioral patterns in the child and even lower IQ.

To sum it up all…

Stress was once our defense against dangers and threats.

But today it has ironically become one of the biggest health hazards. Blame it on the modern lifestyle or your genes – we all are victims of this silent killer. The scariest thing about it is that we have been conditioned to accept it as a part of our lives and hence it usually goes undetected.

Most people talk about it as an abstract emotion, a feeling. This miscalculation disrupts our actual understanding of how physically harmful stress can be.

The good news is, stress can be reduced by bringing healthy changes to your daily routine. Your mind and body will thank you for that!



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