The fight or flight response is an invaluable part of our physical make-up. You have undoubtedly felt it many times: perhaps you’ve sensed you were being followed at night and your heart began to race, you felt hyper-aware of your surroundings and your breath became fast and shallow – you were primed to get out of that situation, or to turn and fight for your life. Maybe you saw a car veering towards you and swerved just in time to avoid it, thanks to that rush of adrenaline you felt coursing through your veins. The physical response of your Sympathetic Nervous System has protected you from danger and quite possibly saved your life on a number of occasions.
So what’s happening here?
When our brains receive stimuli from our senses that add up to “DANGER!”, a fast flowing sequence of events kick in, all with one simple aim: to quickly bring the body to its maximum potential for violent physical action – either fighting for survival, or getting the hell out of there! When your primal brain stem receives that red alert, your adrenal glands are told to release adrenaline and norepinephrine into the blood stream. These powerful hormones immediately elevate the heart rate and blood pressure, trigger the release of glucose from the body’s stores into the muscles, and make the breath fast and shallow. Digestion, as a non-emergency function, ceases, and the bowel and bladder may even empty, the better to flee or fight unencumbered. The pupils dilate; all your senses are heightened. Within a few seconds, the primal instinct has prepared your body so you can do everything in your power to save your own life.
Pretty impressive stuff. We wouldn’t last long without our Sympathetic Nervous System.
But there is a flaw in the plan.
All of this happens before the assessing, planning and reasoning parts of the brain get invited to the party. That’s a great way of buying precious time – act first, think later – and when your life is in danger it’s just what’s needed: fast, instinctive action. The type of threats I mentioned earlier are real, and back in our caveman days we needed that physical response on a daily basis to stay alive and escape a sabre-toothed tiger or fight off a hostile human from a different clan. But in these days of overcrowding and constant e-connectivity, stressors come thick and fast from all directions, and whilst our brains and bodies still perceive these alerts as real threats, there are very few occasions when we genuinely need to respond with strong physical action. The result is that our primal response to the boss’s email, or being stuck in traffic, or being startled awake by a 3am business call from another continent, really doesn’t serve us. If the response were simply redundant it wouldn’t be so bad, but in fact we are left all stressed up with no place to go. When the stress response is appropriate, we run or fight, and the body then returns to its normal state via the relaxation response of the Parasympathetic Nervous System. But when the stressor is a traffic jam, or on the screen in front of you? There’s nothing real to flee, nothing solid to battle, and we end up trapped in a prolonged state of fight or flight.
When a human becomes trapped in this state of hyper-awareness and readiness to fight or flee, a number of things start to happen to the body. At the thin end of the wedge, they may experience difficulty sleeping or switching off at the end of the day. They may drink a little too much alcohol to force themselves into relaxation. They may find themselves gaining weight despite continuing to exercise and eat normally (elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol cause the body to hold onto fat), and experience headaches and muscular tension.
Over time, if the person doesn’t find healthy ways to alleviate and avoid such frequent stress, more serious problems start to present themselves. Digestive disorders such as stomach ulcers can occur, along with high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, depression and anxiety disorders. If the person continues down this path the end results can be catastrophic, with the prolonged fight or flight response now known to be linked to stroke, heart disease and even cancer.
Happily, there is good news.
Whilst it’s unrealistic to think that we can avoid all of modern life’s stressors, we can learn to minimise and manage them. Many triggers come from being constantly connected via email, texts, mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter… the list goes on. Many of us are rarely “present” in our own lives these days, living a virtual life through a screen whilst failing to appreciate or connect with the people and surroundings right in front of us, in all three glorious dimensions! When we live like this, we’re sleepwalking through our precious lives, those same precious lives that our over-stimulated Sympathetic Nervous System is working overtime to save!
So what can we do to give ourselves a little breathing space?
Recognising the stress triggers is the first step to overcoming them. Keeping a stress journal for a week can help you to identify when you feel the heat rising. Once we know our triggers, we can decide whether they are avoidable (and so to be avoided)or unavoidable (to be managed).
Perhaps your job does require you to be connected a lot of the time. But out of hours, can you find ways to limit that? Can you check emails once an hour rather than every few minutes? Can you make it a rule that no phones are allowed at the dinner table? (A great one for teenagers – who will moan, but who come to appreciate having some real facetime rather than the electronic sort.) And how much time do you really need to be on Facebook and Twitter, looking around at what everyone else is doing instead of concentrating on your own life, and waiting for the approval of others in the form of “likes”? I bet you can cut down and I bet you’ll feel happier for it!
If you’re feeling overburdened, can you delegate some of your tasks, both at work and at home?
Transport is a major form of stress in modern life. Do you have to travel in rush hour? If you know you get frazzled before you’ve made it to the office, can you leave 20 minutes earlier and take a refreshing walk around the block when you arrive early? If you can’t change the time you leave, can you learn breathing techniques to help you remain calm? Count the relative length of your inhales and exhales, then extend your exhales so they become longer than your inhales. This instantly engages the Parasympathetic Nervous System: the “rest and digest” response, and the opposite of fight or flight.
Meditation is a wonderful way to manage stress. There are lots of guided meditations available, and it’s a very accessible way to get started. Taking mini-meditation breaks – ten, full steady breaths as the kettle boils in the morning – is a wonderful habit to get into. You may think you don’t have time to meditate, but you will actually become more efficient and productive as a result!
By finding ways to reduce the amount of time you spend in fight/flight, you will give yourself better sleep, more productive time, a greater sense of wellbeing and massively improved health. You owe it to yourself. So…. I hate to rush you… but what are you waiting for?