The fight or flight (or stress response) is getting a lot of mention these days, but it’s surprising how many of us don’t exactly know what it is and in how many ways it affects us. Let me just start by saying that it is of paramount importance in relation to your mental, physical and spiritual health.
Let’s look into what it means to you and your happiness, well-being, and peace of mind. Which, as a matter of course, effects everything else in your life.
So this technology is a built-in response system that has helped the human race survive through all kinds of things – some experts say it’s been around for over 40,000 years, helping us get through it
all. Everything from saber tooth tigers, to wars with neighboring tribes, to mountain lions or any predator or threat you can think of, large and small, has triggered this response throughout history. In brief the fight or flight response is a physiological, automatic response and state our mind and bodies go into when we detect or perceive a dangerous or life-threatening situation. A complex system of responses goes into play – quite a brilliant thing when you think of it. Very helpful in truly threatening situations. In which situations is it not helpful? Just about everything else you come across in this day and age.
You are running late to work/an interview/a meeting with a client/a final/lunch, you get the picture, something important to you. Your mind is making meaning, processing possible outcomes, detecting and defining all that could go wrong from this and what it means for you, your life, your well-being and yes your livelihood. Late for the interview, don’t get the job, don’t eat. Late for work, get fired, don’t eat, late for lunch – fall out of favor with person, end up alone, kicked out of tribe, don’t eat. This type of mental activity is what’s really going on behind the racing thoughts and cursing at stop lights, but what’s happening physiologically is the real kicker.
Simply put, when you are racing to work or any other event of varying importance, your mental/physical being is reacting as if you are being chased by a saber tooth tiger. A complex and highly sophisticated system comes into play, releasing chemicals, tightening muscles, even opening the pupils of your eyes in order to perceive more of what is in your environment. You are in a state of hyper alert, with adrenaline coursing through your veins, cortisol (the stress hormone) reaching heightened levels and something akin to superhuman strength driving you. With all this extra muscle power, focus, and biological backing, we are meant to run like crazy, or stand our ground to defend our lives (or the lives of our offspring). This system works great for physical threats. It does exactly what it is designed to do, but what about the nonphysical threats – ah? Herein lies the problem.
Fight or Flight in Response to Nonphysical Threats
When this system starts kicking into gear when we are late to work, or have had a fight with our significant other, or when our financial situation is not doing well, or when our boss yells at us, or
when the big project goes into the red, or when our final paper comes back marked up in red, or when… you get the picture. In any of these scenarios, we are threatened, because in some way or another, all of these (and millions of other like events) will affect our lives in some way shape or form which we perceive as negative, and if taken to the extreme may affect our ability to take care of our very basic needs. The thing is, at that moment, we are not in danger, let me repeat, we are not in physical danger, yet our mind/body reacts as if we are.
This mind/body reaction to dozens, even hundreds of emotional threats a day has us on fight or flight response overload. In a world where your boss scolds you, and you begin to feel those symptoms kicking in, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, quickening of the breath, there is no socially correct option that comes near fight or flight. We don’t (usually) fight, or flee. We go back to our office or cubicle. We deal with it in whatever way we do (usually by not dealing with it), but the response is not releasing the chemicals, toxins and other buildups it is supposed to. These chemicals if not released from out bodies, become toxic, circulating and recirculating. Having this continue on an endless loop creates all sorts of ailments. The most obvious being anxiety, hypertension, tension headaches, chronic stress, insomnia, just to name a few, but as they say, most dis-ease starts from stress. And if we constantly have the stress response to a myriad of emotional threats, then we are constantly running these chemicals and hormones through our system.
Degraded Rational Thought
What does not help the matter is when we are in this state, our capacity to think is largely degraded. We are thinking and processing information from the reptilian part of the brain, the lowest level. Our higher level and reasoning parts sort of shut down temporarily. In survival mode, we don’t need to discern what would be a best future action, but what is best for survival now. You can also see why a lot of people get stuck in the same behavioral patterns with things like money and employment. The fear kicks in and they can no longer rationally think of their situation. Our thoughts are a string of fear-inducing, fight-or-flight triggering spiraling thoughts, that perhaps end by some distraction here or there, but kick in once again when we have forgotten to distract ourselves.
What is the way out? As with most things, the first step we can take is simple awareness. Next time you feel this reaction kicking in, take a moment and simply be present and aware to your mental monlogue and what is happening with you physically.
Pay attention to the beat of your heart as it thumps in your chest, or the hotness in your cheeks as they flush. The awareness of the reaction instantly brings a calming effect. It takes you off the fight-or-flight train, even if only for a moment and breaks the illusion. Eckhart Tolle puts it wonderfully when he says we must create space in between our thoughts. When we do this, we slowly but surely take the power away from our thoughts and create a space where peace of mind can begin to flourish.
Creating a space between stimulus and response is an essential step in reducing the fight-or-flight response in our lives. There are other practices that can habituate this and bring real health, physical and emotional, benefits with it. Practices like meditation that are proven to improve conditions like hyper tension, anxiety, depression, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional conditions. Stay tuned as this blog is dedicated in exploring ways in which we can increase our quality of life, and empower ourselves through knowledge and action.
Suggested Reading: Transcendence: Healing and Transforming through Transcendental Meditation.