Stress - The Cost of Fear
As far as the body is concerned, fear is a danger signal - it responds with an automatic reaction called the "fight-flight response". The heart rate quickens, blood pressure rises, breathing is disturbed, muscles become tense, the skin begins to sweat, while digestion, reproduction and other processes that will not be needed for the moment are turned down. The body is preparing for action - to flee or to fight.
In contemporary society such threats are few and far between. Our mastery of the world has enabled us to avoid or guard against most such dangers. But this does not mean that we are free from threat; human beings have created a whole new set of things to worry about. Our need to feel in control may be threatened by imposed workloads, tight deadlines, crowded schedules. We may feel threatened by traffic jams, delayed flights, incompetent staff, unexpected demands and anything else that might cost us time. Our need for self-esteem, recognition and approval can be threatened by the fear of failure, the fear of looking foolish in front of others, fear of criticism and the fear of being rejected. Uncertainty or anything else that makes us feel insecure can likewise be perceived as a threat.
The body seldom has time to recover from one alarm before the next one has triggered. Before long our bodies end up in a permanent state of underlying tension.
Such threats are unique to humans; we can imagine - and thus worry about - things that a cat or dog could not possibly conceive of. The trouble is, our biological evolution has not caught up with our mental evolution. Our bodies respond to these psychological threats just as they would to any physical threat. So we find our hearts thumping, our palms sweating and our muscles tightening because of some danger that we perceive within our minds - because someone criticises us, because we have to speak in a group, or because we may be late for a meeting.
Usually these turn out to be a false alarm, but the body cannot unwind and recover so quickly to a state of ease as the second it took to jump to alert. The body seldom has time to recover from one alarm before the next one has triggered. Before long our bodies end up in a permanent state of underlying tension. This background tension then feeds back and begins to affect our thinking, emotions and behavior. Our judgment deteriorates, we tend to make more mistakes, we may feel depressed, hostile towards others, act less rationally, and so on. The toll on our bodies manifests in various ways: aches and pains, indigestion, insomnia, high blood pressure, allergies, illness - sometimes leading to premature death.