To understand the physiological processes that take place in our brain and body when we are under stress, the clear picture of the saber-toothed tiger reflex has proven itself useful.

What happens in the event of imminent danger?

There are various systems in the body that convey tension and relaxation. The most fundamental, most common is that of the sympathetic (the driver) and the parasympathetic (the relaxer). The nervous system of the sympathetic nervous system increases the heartbeat and blood pressure in case of ‘danger’ (e.g. stress), by activating and releasing all energy reserves, ‘full throttle’, so to speak, is given, which leads to tension in the muscles (we are ready to do so quickly in the event of imminent danger to flee or attack an opponent), as well as to narrow the pupils for sharp vision (where is the danger?).

The nerve network of the parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is the antagonist, it relaxes the system, it steps on the brakes, so to speak, after we have run up, it ensures that everything that is no longer necessary for survival is shut down again. It lowers blood pressure and heart rate, dilates the pupils, and thus corresponds to the message: the danger is over!

This accelerator and brake system is controlled by an area in the brain called the limbic system. To put it simply, two structures sit here, the danger guard (amygdala) and the calmer (hippocampus). In the amygdala, a very old center in the brain development of living beings, which all further developed living beings have, every external stimulus that affects us and that we perceive, e.g. a bang, a lightning bolt or a shock, is checked to see whether it is something that represents danger for the individual or not. But even just fearful thoughts can trigger this area, for example what used to be the fearful thought “Is the saber-toothed tiger still there?” Today the fearful thought “The boss wrote me another email”. In the normal state, a feedback is set in motion at the same time when a hazard is reported, according to the motto: “Do I know such a situation, have I already experienced it, can I fall back on empirical values ​​for a solution?” If there is positive experience, the warning system can relax and the appropriate actions are taken. Finally, the feedback is “Danger recognized, danger averted, I can relax again”.

However, if the individual is overstimulated and overworked, this center (the danger watchdog) only tends to focus on the danger even more sharply and, if there is a supposed danger, to jump in even more quickly. Originally neutral things and situations are suddenly classified as possibly stressful and dangerous because you are already standing with your back to the wall and have already achieved a permanent feeling of threat. Finally, an everything is all-clear and the accompanying relaxation is no longer possible. If this control center is overly activated in the long run, it can lead to that the normally occurring feedback processes no longer function. The deliberate processing of the information is reduced and instead stimuli are passed on, unchecked, directly to the action and defense center. This means that the physical hormonal stress cascade, the saber-toothed tiger reflex, is set in motion. The adrenal cortex is stimulated via the pituitary gland to release adrenaline for an acute and rapid stress reaction and cortisol for long-term, chronic stress management.

What happens in the event of a chronic “alarm condition”?

Now the nervous system of the sympathetic nervous system (the driver) puts the body in the alarm state in order to banish the impending danger through the ancient defense mechanism “attack” or “escape”. Our adrenal glands release adrenaline, which increases the heartbeat and blood pressure; the faster pulse, in turn, creates more oxygen, which optimizes the performance of the muscles; insulin is also released to supply the muscles with more food; Digestion and sexuality, on the other hand, are shut down (this only interferes with the defense). To better recognize the danger, the pupils are also made narrow and the entire concentration is focused on what is happening. A typical symptom of this is that you can no longer stop brooding over a conflict situation. While our entire system continues to react reflexively to the age-old threat from the saber-toothed tiger, this saber-toothed tiger, to which we were able to react with the automatic hazard defense strategies of attack or escape, no longer exists. In other words, we can no longer react to the current ‘saber-toothed tigers’ (be it the boss or other people, things or situations that are perceived as frightening) with attack or flight. Therefore, we instead accumulate these energies mobilized to avert danger.

While, according to the physiology of the program programmed into us, we should convert this mobilized energy of our muscles through movement through attack or flight and “burn” the released adrenaline in order to then care for our wounds in the protection of the safe cave and our emotions through ‘hero reports’ and to relax experiencing care, it is now the case that these physical possibilities of energy evacuation – attack or flight – are no longer an option.

If we do not experience compensation and relaxation for our high emotions in our private environment, the result is that this unresolved energy, mobilized by the stress (= danger!) continues to accumulate and ‘boils’ in us. If such a situation continues and becomes permanent stress without a physical and emotional balance being given, the collapse of this system is predictable. An important early warning sign for this is, for example, the nocturnal sleep disturbance, which can be traced back to an overproduction of cortisol in the adrenal glands that is no longer regulated due to the constant stress.

What can we do to compensate?

However, we can learn to compensate for the saber-toothed tiger reflex “attack or flight” by introducing a balancing effect on the hippocampus, the calmer, or decelerator and / or on its opponent, the amygdala, i.e. the driver or danger guard. We can strengthen the hippocampus by practicing a stress-free and competition-free sport on the physical level, whereby we can release the pent-up physical energies (we should, however, be careful not to bring on new forms of stress!) The second approach is to counteract the overactivation of the amygdala through mental processes, be it through conscious calming or meditation, or through cognitive processes or restructuring, such as self-suggestions, such as inner encouraging dialogues or meditative exercises.

In the integrative diagnosis and therapy approach of Prof. Stark’s practice, you can test to what extent your body is stressed and to what extent it is still capable of regeneration, and, under therapeutic guidance, you can learn to recognize these processes on a physical and psychological level and to take countermeasures in time.