Think of a recent time you faced imminent danger, whether real or not, and the automatic response your body triggers. I remember hiking on a trail and turning a corner to face a coyote just 25 feet away. I immediately tensed up, fists locked and eyes focused with 20/20 vision. All senses were on heightened alert as adrenaline raced through my veins. My breathing increased as my heart pounded, flooding a rush of blood to my body. Instinctively, I was ready to do battle but thankfully this very scrawny coyote was equally terrified and raced off.
We all have an inherent physiological response that prepares us from perceived threat or harm called Fight or Flight, which essentially offers two options: Do battle or run for your life. We can thank our ancestors for this as it was critical for their survival, only in those days it was likely a sabre-toothed tiger and not some skinny coyote they were eluding. They cultivated this primitive, inborn trigger response to optimally prepare for attack. All at once, in seemingly a split second, our body orchestrates the following:
- Adrenaline released into our bloodstream.
- The rate of respiration increases
- Blood is moved away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs (after all, who needs to eat if we are to be eaten?)
- Pupils dilate and sight sharpens
- Awareness magnifies.
Our safe lives in the suburbs today no longer have us fleeing from tigers but we have evolved this remarkable auto-response to now deal with a new threat to our existence: modern day stress. Today’s tigers are rush hour traffic, deadlines, financial pressure and family drama. Our fight or flight system activates, in various degrees, as if our physical survival was indeed being threatened, pumping toxic stress hormones into our bodies. But unlike our ancestors who had an immediate, binary outcome with a tiger attack (escape or death), we carry our stress factors for days, weeks, months, even years. We don’t peak and therefore don’t get the physical release and recovery afterward. This sustains into a chronic disease as our bodies are artificially stimulated on higher alert than necessary, causing everything from headaches to upset stomach to high blood pressure (please read my blog Stress the silent killer for symptomatic triggers as disease manifests from ‘dis-ease’).
So what to do when the Fight or Flight response is building up inside us, with our stress hormones and neurotransmitters firing on all cylinders, our blood pressure rising, our heart pounding, our muscles tense, our stomach churning? Awareness is the initial, critical element in learning how to free yourself and disarm the response. The natural reaction is to suppress these feelings, to push them aside or away, and not think about them. But for optimal resolution, we need to be mindful of them and observe the mind activity within us. Recognition of our toxic thoughts and feelings can offer us a choice whether we want to cling and attach to them or simply let them pass through like dark clouds (yes, we each have this power within us). Once we bring the stressors into awareness, we have many tools available to us to adapt in new ways to battle stress and quiet the mind. Any activity that aligns the Mind/Body Connection can positively impact your health such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga, walking, swimming and other forms of exercise. This brings a sense of wholeness, where Mind and Body are linked and work together to heal. All of these methods help maintain a balance of Mind and Body, often referred to as your center, which mitigates the need to launch a Fight or Flight response.
But don’t misunderstand me as our Fight or Flight response can be immensely valuable too. I may not be so lucky on my next hike and run into a bigger coyote where I’ll need my running shoes (I’m a Flighter, not a Fighter!). There is no on/off switch as this auto-response is inevitable in our turbulent lives so we need to continuously monitor this in our modern society. We can learn how to cope and manage our stress factors through awareness and Mind Body methods to reduce and relieve our reaction. After all, just as our ancestors developed a solution for survival, future generations may be depending on us to evolve and develop solutions to combat modern day challenges.