Unexpected life events are disruptive and can throw your whole life into chaos. People are creatures of habit and thrive in an environment where they feel safe and free from harm. But life just isn’t usually like this. Events that are out of our control are inevitable in everyone’s life, and are a major source of stress.
Voluntary and Involuntary Responses
There are two sides to our reaction during a stressful situation - voluntary and involuntary responses. Voluntary responses are those that we have control over, the way that we command our bodies and control our minds. Involuntary responses are those things that we do not have control over. These include the fight or flight response, which is discussed later in this article, as well as other stress responses that we see in individuals (Connor-Smith, Compas, Wadsworth, Alexandra, & Saltzman, 2000). Voluntary and involuntary responses are both essential to our ability to deal with stressful situations, as when a crisis first occurs, we often don’t have time to “think” about what’s going to happen, we must simply react in order to survive.
It’s difficult to do, but realizing that you are not in control of every detail in a situation is key to responding in the most positive way possible. Just as your body has voluntary and involuntary reactions, so too does the situation have parts that you can control and parts that are out of your control. Both sides are important.
When presented with a situation, the involuntary system takes over. However, the voluntary responses are what create the overall reaction to a situation. Problem solving, emotional regulation, and cognitive restructuring are all part of the voluntary responses to a stressful situation. These are the parts of your reaction that you can work on in order to prepare you for stressful life situations, and also those aspects that you can support in others as they face life crises.
Fight or Flight
Understanding what’s going on in your body during a stressful situation is key to increasing your ability to respond in the most positive fashion. When a challenge comes to us and we aren’t prepared for it, we naturally react with a fight or flight response. Our bodies are programmed to either stay and face the problem or run away to escape it. An evolutionary advantage that allows us to evaluate a situation, size up our ability to confront it, and then move forward with confidence, this response has kept humanity moving forward for thousands of years (Jansen & Loewy, 1995). Without the natural fight or flight response, humanity might well not have survived.
So what happens during fight or flight? There is a definite physiological response to stressful situations (Jansen & Loewy, 1995). This happens in a very specific order.
This all happens whether you’re attacked by a bear or in a car accident. Twenty to sixty minutes is how long it lasts, and once that subsides then rational thought comes back and we feel more of ourselves. That initial circumstance that triggers the response is only the beginning (Holden, 2005). We can then repeat the response again and again as various new stimuli come into the picture. So in the case of a medical diagnosis, that first fight or flight response is going to be a big one. Your body is going to have a huge response at the time that you get the information. But then this response will happen again and again as the process of pursuing treatment continues. Whenever there is a new stressor - such as news of a reaction to a medication that was unexpected, or even the addition of a new doctor to your team, that response is mirrored. Your body may not go completely back to its normal functioning again until long after you have gotten through the illness. And it’s important to remember that these kinds of responses do not only occur in the person at the center of a life crisis, but all of those caregivers and support people like spouses, friends and children, will have levels of the fight or flight response as well.
One of the most challenging things about our society is that we can stay in a fight or flight response all of the time (Ellis, 2012). There is a constant strain of stress, including a self induced stress that derives from the stimulation that comes with media exposure. The sense of constant crisis from all directions that fuels media means that our bodies never get a break. What this means for a real time of crisis is that our bodies are exposed and unable to process the information that we need in order to maintain ourselves through an actual crisis.
Anger or Fear?
One way to deconstruct the fight or flight response is to couch it in terms of anger or fear. Fight is an angry response, facing the challenge that is presented with a harsh mindset that helps us to face the situation head on. Flight is a fear response that causes us to run from a situation. While both responses are valid, recent research has shown that facing situations with fear exacerbates the stress response and can lead to more negative impacts from the stressful situation (Holden, 2005). These same increases in stress response were not found in people who faced situations with anger. In fact, those who faced situations with anger actually had much lower levels of stress hormones. This is a completely logical reaction, as fear implies a loss of control while anger implies taking control.
Both responses to a stressful situation are appropriate and it’s very important that individuals not judge themselves when they respond either way initially. When a stressful life situation presents itself, bringing self judgement into the picture is one of the most detrimental things that an individual can do. Judgement only adds another layer of complexity to already complex problems, making everything even worse.
Worry releases cortisol, a stress hormone that helps to keep our bodies awake and alert (Ellis, 2012). Cortisol is the reason that we tend to be more focused in the morning and less so late at night. It’s also the reason that our minds become superfocused during times of high stress. But worrying activates those same responses again, even when the challenge isn’t present. Activating relaxation brings the body’s stress hormone levels down and brings perspective to the situation, as well as easing the negative physical symptoms associated with a problem.
Coping with a Life Crisis
When that event first occurs, the fight or flight response guides the decision making process. But in order to effectively cope with life crises, it’s important that individuals create a plan in order to manage the situation. As mentioned previously, most life crises are not isolated events but rather are part of a wider life challenge that will continuously present issues to be faced. So often people don’t appreciate the complexity or wide reach that a crisis will bring to their lives.
In order to manifest the most positive outcomes, it’s absolutely essential that you are honest with yourself about all that dealing with a crisis will likely entail. Getting that perspective means creating a complete picture of the situation. Here the point is not to create more stress by adding on to what might be right in front, but rather a way to prepare for whatever might be coming. When working through a difficult situation, one of the things that can make it unbearable is the notion that it will last forever. But looking at the whole situation can mean seeing not only that it will last for a lengthy amount of time, but also that it will have an ebb and eventually an end.
In today’s society, people naturally sit down to their computers when faced with a difficult situation. We “google it.” Doing this leads to an overload of information, and often means more worrying than action. Remember that worry is not a constructive response in a crisis situation (Ellis, 2005).
Support and Light on the Other Side
Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. It’s incredibly important that you look to others to get through a life crisis. There is always someone out there to help, even if your traditional support network seems to break down. In fact one thing that often happens is that a stressful event snowballs into further stressful events, when family or friend support systems are strained. But be aware that resources including counseling, support groups, religious organizations and community groups can help people through rough situations (Cavalcanti, Leandro, Azevedo & Sofia, 2013). And remember that everyone will go through a life crisis at some point, so people are understanding and empathetic to others during a crisis situation.
While it may not seem this way during that initial fight or flight response, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Often we are close to the end and feel at the breaking point when in fact the stress is almost over. Realizing this fact is important because it gives hope during a time of trouble.
When presented with a life crisis, here’s a summary of what you need to know in order to face it:
Recognize the impact of the fight or flight response
Don’t add to worry through self judgement
Be honest about the complete impact of the event
Form a plan of action
Get support when you need it
Realize that life will go on
There’s no doubt that a life crisis is something that everyone must face at some point. It’s an inevitable part of life. But being ready for it is something that you can do, and through that readiness you’ll be able to get through to the other side.
Cavalcanti, Leandro, and Azevedo, Sofia, eds. (2013) Psychology of Stress : New Research. Hauppauge, NY, USA: Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2013. ProQuest
Connor-Smith, J., Compas, B. E., Wadsworth, M. E., Alexandra, H. T., & Saltzman, H. (2000). Responses to stress in adolescence: Measurement of coping and involuntary stress responses. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(6), 976-992.
Ellis, G. (2012, Sep). Glenn's strategies for well-being: Stress and your health. Mississippi Link
Holden, C. (2005). Fight or flight. Science, 310(5752), 1274.
Jansen, A. S. P. & Loewy, A. D. (1995). Central command neurons of the sympathetic nervous system: Basis of the fight-or-flight response. Science, 270(5236), 644.