Our three stress responses

How our innate Survival Operating System (SOS) interprets a situation determines the response the system activates. The three responses are:

Challenge Response
Survival Response
Tend and Befriend Response

Each response:

is our body’s natural way of preparing our body and for movement, either towards pleasure or away from pain.
is normal and necessary
exists to help us.
has a different impact on our and physical and emotional state and our behaviour.

 The Challenge Response

When our SOS identifies a situation (real or imagined) as a challenge, the Challenge Response (Richard S. Lazarus and Suzanne Folkman,1984) is activated.

We’re likely to interpret a situation as a challenge when we perceive that something at stake depends on the outcome of our performance, and the activity stretches us mentally and/or physically, and we believe we have sufficient skills and resources to rise to the challenge.

The hormonal cocktail released in response to activating the Challenge Response is in a different ratio to that of the Survival Response. Adrenaline and cortisol are released but, at lower levels than are released by activation of the Survival Response. A steroid called DHEA is also released. DHEA acts as a precursor for testosterone and other hormones. Endorphins, testosterone, and dopamine motivate us to take action towards meeting the challenge.

Your heart rate rises. There is an increase in the volume of blood pumped by the heart and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels. The physiological and cognitive changes created by activation of the Challenge Response allow us to perform at our best under pressure. They are typically associated with positive psychological and physiological outcomes including:

better decision-making.
exploring the situation for its growth potential or for what we might gain from the meeting the challenge. 
enhanced focus and attention.
more confidence.
more energy
feeling eagerness, excitement and exhilaration
enhanced performance

These changes enable us to better meet the challenge head on.

When our SOS interprets a situation as a danger it can either activate the Survival Response, which predisposes us to aggression or withdrawal, or it can activate the Tend and Befriend Response which predisposes us to social connection.

The Survival Response

When our SOS identifies a situation (real or imagined) as a danger to our physical and or emotional wellbeing, the Survival Response is activated. This delivers a surge of adrenaline into the bloodstream. As a result, our heart pumps blood faster and delivers more oxygen to our muscles, so we are physically stronger and can see and hear better. Cognitively activation of the Survival Response impairs decision-making in the short-term.

These temporary physical and mental adaptations help us either fight against a threat if overcoming the threat is likely, or flee if overcoming the threat is unlikely. Hence why the Survival Response is more commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

The feeling we call (acute) ‘stress’ is associated with the Survival Response. The pounding heart, rapid breathing, sweaty palms etc are just a signal from our body to our brain that we have survived the real and present danger. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be feeling stressed!  

Tend and Befriend Response

Research into responses to danger has identified that real and present danger doesn’t only motivate self-defence (via the Survival Response), as scientists had long believed. Danger can also activate a response that motivates us to protect our ‘tribe’. This response has been named the Tend-And-Befriend Response. It sometimes expresses itself differently in men than it does in women, but the two sexes share it. In times of danger, both men and women have been shown to become more trusting, generous, and willing to risk their own well-being to protect others.

From an evolutionary point of view, we have the Tend-And-Befriend Response in our SOS first and foremost to make sure we protect our offspring. To make sure we have the courage to protect our loved ones, the response must counter our basic survival instinct to avoid harm. So, the response inhibits the fear centres of the brain, increasing our ability to take action in the face of fear (i.e. be courageous).

One of the hormones released during this response is oxytocin, a neuro hormone which promotes affiliation. Oxytocin primes us to do things that create social networks that provide protection from threats. It strengthens close relationships. It makes us crave physical contact with family and friends. It increases our empathy, connection, and trust and makes us more willing to protect, help and support others. It motivates us to seek support, and to tell someone how we feel rather than bottling up those feelings

Being able to reach out to close friends, colleagues, and family members is central to resilience, flourishing, well-being, happiness, and just about every other positive metric of human functioning. When you seek social contact and give support you, it changes our biochemistry, activating systems of the brain that produce feelings of hope and courage.

Overall, the Tend-And-Befriend Response is healthier than the Survival Response. For instance, oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory. It helps protect your cardiovascular system from the damaging effects of chronic stress.

Kelly McGonigal author of the Upside of Stress says “A tend-and-befriend response may have evolved to help us protect offspring, but when you are in that state, your bravery translates to any challenge you face. And, this is the most important part, anytime you choose to help others, you activate this state. Caring for others triggers the biology of courage and creates hope.”

The Tend-And-Befriend Response is more common in women and may help explain why women, on average, have less heart disease and live longer than men.

Choosing your response

One way you can change your response is to change the way you interpret a situation. Often our SOS will, by default, activate the Survival Response. But once you feel that spike in stress you can then make a conscious decision to interpret the associated situation as a challenge rather than a threat. These questions will help you do that:

a)     Where do I have control/influence/leverage in this situation?

b)     What is a specific action step I can take?

c)     What are my strengths?

d)     What resources do I have?

e)     What allows me to know that I can handle this?

A second way you can change your response is to do something to support or care for others. This will activate your Tend and Befriend Response and produce feelings of motivation, hope and courage.

Do you need help managing your stress?

If you want help getting your stress or anxiety under control, simply click the button below to secure a free 30 min Zoom or phone chat with me, where you can explore how I can help you destress and liberate yourself from anxiety. Alternatively give me a call or contact me today on 021 056 8389 or email tony@tycoaching.nz.

I’m on a mission to help as many people as possible enjoy lives free of unnecessary stress and anxiety. If you’d like my help, or you know someone who would benefit, call/text me today on 021 056 8389 or email tony@tycoaching.nz