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The Stress Response: Born to Survive

Updated: Feb 1

- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC

April 20, 2020

All humans and animals are built for survival. Consider primitive times when a saber-tooth tiger might have approached a family. When a threat is identified by the amygdala in the brain the anxiety response is immediately initiated. This activates the sympathetic nervous system beginning with the release of adrenalin and cortisol, as identified by Dr. Catherine M. Pittman, 2020, professor and scholar.

This stress response is built in, providing us with a faster heartbeat, rapid breathing, increased blood flow, and more glucose to reach our muscles, all to aid strength. Our pupils dilate to help focus, digestion is slowed to help direct blood flow elsewhere quickly, and speeds elimination. These and more physiological changes occur immediately to help us survive. This is the natural "fight or flight" response we have when safety is threatened.

If chronic stress or repeated triggers of prior trauma have caused the amygdala to perceive a situation as a serious threat, this too triggers the release of hormones and activation of the stress or anxiety response. All of these processes are still initiated.

Frequent triggering if the stress response can unfortunately lead to physiological and emotional impairment. Rapid breathing can lead to hyper-ventilation; a faster heartbeat can cause palpitations and increased blood pressure; more glucose in the blood can impact levels of sugar or lead to insulin resistance; dry mouth and digestive issues can cause nausea or gastrointestinal upset; and overall feelings of panic can feel paralyzing.

Some physicians refer to these symptoms as an “exaggerated stress response”. Instead of language that can feel stigmatizing, this state of chronic stress and trauma triggered responses could instead be recognized for what it truly is: A trauma-induced warrior state. The "fight or flight" response was absolutely adaptable at some point in the patient's life, causing a natural pathway in the brain to be initiated by the amygdala, in order to survive the traumatic event.

As time goes on, heightened amygdala responses caused by past events continue to be triggered. The pathway stops being helpful, and can become detrimental instead. It is a state of being that can feel as though it cannot be controlled, which can lead to a person feeling like they are "going crazy", as clients have shared in sessions.

I assure them, however: "you are absolutely not 'crazy'” and "none of this is 'in your head'”. Self stigma often hits the hardest. Validation and knowledge is the start of a true healing process.

Clients with these conditions hear me say, "We are human. The threat to you was real. Your trauma should be honored. Your pain can heal."

Neuroscience has the evidence to prove what mental health clinicians have long known. Trauma and chronic stress can cause the brain to have a heightened response to triggers causing a negative spiral impact on a person’s physical and mental well-being.

Counseling facilitates the brain’s healing powers through a process called neuroplasticity, when combined interventions including cognitive restructuring, psychological education, relaxation training, healthy activity, nutrition, and sleep. Counseling helps form healthy new pathways to allow us to manage stress and to take more control of the physiological changes that occur with triggers.

If you are an Ohio adult, I would love to help you find your way to less anxiety, stress, and improved overall health through the use of evidence-based approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, and Trauma-Informed Care.


Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting



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