Our sympathetic nervous system, and the stress response in particular, evolved because they allow us to respond to physical danger in a reflexive, immediate, and predictable way. When we perceive a threatening situation, the stress response, also know as the “fight or flight” response, is triggered. Neurochemicals are released that quicken our breath, increase our heart rate, stop all nonessential processes (such as digestion and fighting off disease), dilate our pupils (so we can see better), activate our sweat glands (to make us slippery), and constrict our arteries (to shunt blood to large muscle groups). Our muscles tense, readying us to either fight or flee, and the scope of both our perceptual and conceptual attention grows more narrow and rigid to help us focus on the object of threat and rote responses for dealing with it.
Thanks to this series of incredibly well-designed electrochemical responses, we are well prepared for threats of physical danger such as a grizzly bear crashing through the woods. However, none of these responses help us when faced with the social and mental “threats” that are more often the source of contemporary stress (such as public speaking, relationship conflict, and test performance). The stress response can in fact hurt our performance on these tasks which would benefit from a relaxed physical state and open, flexible attention.