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Fear and the Stress Response

by Mary Martin(more info)

listed in stress, originally published in issue 136 - June 2007

A recent survey revealed that many Britons find work, family and finances so stressful they feel their lives are spiralling out of control. Millions of working days are lost. Most people can identify with the standard definition of stress. ‘Stress is the accumulation of normal and abnormal pressures of daily living that tests the individual’s perception of a threat.’

The Stress Response

The stress response enabled our cave dwelling ancestors to confront life-threatening dangers. This could involve a confrontation with a dangerous animal! In fractions of a second the brain would activate a complex process of chemical messages and mobilize the body to fight or flee.

In today’s pressurized society the threats and challenges are mainly of a psychological nature. Nevertheless, our bodies react in a similar way to the cave dweller – it is the survival instinct. Herein lies the problem. Activation of the stress response without physical activity is detrimental to health. For example, losing their job can make a person angry and aggressive. They may feel like punching the boss! The stress response is activated – but they cannot hit out. The effects of stress are not released but accumulate in the body.

The body’s response to stress is largely brought about by the action of the hormones noradrenaline, adrenaline and cortisol. The intensity and frequency of repeated aggravations place huge demands on the body – creating a major cause of disease.

Perception of a Threat

Studies show that it is the individual’s perception of a threat that triggers stress – rather than the event itself. Fear is the stressor. The brain registers the fear and activates the stress response.

Common fears are:
  • Fear of the death of a loved one, fear of divorce;
  • Fear of serious illness or surgery;
  • Fear of unemployment or insolvency;   
  • Fear of old age or loneliness.
For example, levels of the stress hormone, cortisol increases with people undergoing surgery. Research shows that it is the anticipation of surgery that causes the increase.

Stress and Disease

Stress is implicated in most diseases. Warning signs include fatigue, insomnia, digestive problems or frequent infections. People experience irritability, mood swings, lack of concentration and an increasing inability to cope. This can lead to over-eating or increasing use of alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs.

Persistent stress suppresses immunity by inhibiting the T-lymphocytes and macrophages – increasing susceptibility to infections and chronic disorders. These include hypertension, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, depression or ulcerative colitis.

A Holistic Perspective

Reflexology can improve homeostatic function. It regulates breathing, eases muscular tension and relaxes body and mind. Disorder does not exist in isolation. The extent to which stressors harm health largely depends on how much control people have over their situation – and on their level of support. Patients are participants in their own recovery – not passive victims. Empathetic therapists support patients through their difficulties and in making lifestyle changes – for better health and wellbeing.

Case Example

Judith, aged 60, suffered from chronic head pains, virtually daily, for a year. She feared she had a brain tumour. Her symptoms were investigated and diagnosed as anxiety. Her doctor prescribed painkillers. Their only effect was to cause constipation. Another long-term and distressing symptom was tinnitus, in the form of a loud buzzing noise. She took drugs for hypertension (probably stress-related).

Following a sinus infection six months previously, Judith’s right nostril was blocked. Her sleep pattern was severely disturbed. She said that she had chronic tension in her neck and also her jaw. She was highly anxious. Judith was slim and ate healthily. Her domestic life was good. She had a responsible job that she drove to through busy traffic. Her symptoms began after a problematic house move.

Her first treatment indicated much tension in her head, neck, shoulders, facial muscles and jaw. There were strong responses from the reflexes relating to her sinuses and her digestive system. Her constant fears about a brain tumour exacerbated her symptoms. We discussed this.

At her second treatment she said that her head pains had changed. Her sinuses were less congested and her sleep pattern improved. By her third treatment her bowel function had normalized. By her fourth treatment she was experiencing vivid dreams. I explained this was a natural way of expressing her anxieties. At her fifth treatment she appeared far more relaxed. Her right nostril had cleared completely and her other symptoms were greatly reduced. Her jaw was free of tension.

After a distressing year, within eight, weekly, treatments, Judith was free of symptoms. The psychological and physical benefits of reflexology had freed her from fear.


Martin P. The Sickening Mind. Flamingo. ISBN 0 00 655022 3. 1998.


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About Mary Martin

A qualified teacher, Mary Martin established her School of Reflexology in 1987. She founded the Association of Reflexologists in 1984 and is an Honorary Life Member. Previously she practised as a Gerson therapist. Mary belongs to a network of therapists attached to the cancer centre at Mount Vernon Hospital. She has had a busy practice in Ruislip since 1983. She may be contacted on Tel: 01895 635621;


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