What exactly happens in our body when we face danger? Our ancestors encountered life-threatening events and developed the fight-flight-freeze stress response. We use the same self-protective mechanism today to react to emotional and psychological threats. However, this is not without drawbacks.
How does the fight-flight-freeze response make us physically prepared to fight back, flee or pause in danger?
This is what happens in our body ‘behind the scenes’ – (the science behind the things we don’t realise are happening that result in the symptoms we all recognise). Get familiar with them and take the mystery and fear out of your very human reaction:
(based on Veronica Walsh’s CBT Blog)
- Thoughts racing and disjointed – caused by an adrenaline release.
- Dizzy / lightheaded –due to adrenaline and increased oxygen levels.
- Surroundings seem distant or visual ‘tunnel’ –your pupils dilate to allow you to take in as much visual information as possible. Eyes refocus to the distance to spot danger.
- Heart pounding – The heart starts beating faster to increase circulation since the body anticipates it will be working harder to service the muscles.
- Difficulty breathing – the lungs throat and nostrils open up to flood the lungs with enough oxygen to keep up with the increased circulation of blood (re-oxygenating it) – this can trigger shallow, rapid breathing.and
- Shaky voice: an overload of oxygen (stimulus) interferes with vocalising.
- Neck and shoulder tension – caused by the oxygen pumping to muscles, and after effects as the oxygen reduces.
- Blushing – Adrenaline causes your blood vessels to dilate in order to improve blood flow and oxygen delivery. As a result, the veins in your face dilate, allowing more blood to flow through them than usual.
- Sweating – The body heats up because it is working harder to circulate blood. And then sweats so it can cool itself down / regulate temperatures.
- Butterflies/’sick’ feeling – Cortisol shuts down your digestive system, (as it is not needed to fight or run) and redirects blood to essential systems such as the heart, lungs, legs and arms. This can also cause irritable bowel syndrome, nausea and diarrhoea.
- Dry mouth – Cortisol shutting down inessential systems reduces saliva in the mouth.
- Need to urinate (and maybe even pass a stool) – The bladder and bowels may open out to reduce the need for inessential internal actions (and faeces & urine may have put off our attackers).
- Trembling, wobbliness, tingling and shaking – an effect of adrenaline stimulus and oxygen stimulus (overloads).
- Tightness in the chest and throat, difficulty breathing – the body is overloading on oxygen – which is dangerous if you do not burn the extra oxygen off. Consequently, the body tries to reduce the levels by constricting the chest and the lungs, therefore reducing breath intake.
Using “old hardware” in the Age of Technology
The stress response developed over millions of years and ensured the survival of our species. The brain’s “hardware” evolved to perfectly serve our predecessors. The dangers faced by our ancestors were mainly of a physical nature. Physical threats apply today equally, however, in addition, we face emotional, psychological and social stressors as well.
Early humans lived more attuned with nature, whereby their sharp senses picked up even the smallest sign of danger and responded to it as was required. Having survived, they could relax after the unpleasant encounter. Living in nature provided plenty of opportunities for homeostasis i.e. re-balancing their mind and body.
Living in the 21st century means that the majority of stressors threaten our ‘ego’ or ‘self’ and not our body (or life). Our body’s physiological response to these – often only ‘perceived’ threats – such as facing an unfamiliar situation, or new environment, speaking in front of an audience, sitting for an exam or going for a first date, is the same as it has been for millions of years.
Is our brain well adapted to the 21st century?
The dangers facing the highly social, intellectual and self-conscious humans today are largely psychological. They often originate from the fear of being judged, left out, ridiculed, or deemed incompetent by the peer group that matters to them.
“What happens if…?”
“Will I be good enough…?”
“They won’t like me…”
“I’ll make a fool of myself if…”
Thoughts like these, triggered by psychological stress, don’t go away easily. The on-going nature of such stress means that our brain is continuously in fight-flight-freeze mode. After a while we loose our capacity to relax and regain balance – whereby our brain turned to rest-and-digest mode. We don’t or we cannot give ourselves time and permission to re-calibrate. Hence we remain in the state of hyper-arousal, with dire consequences on our health.
Given the incredibly long history of human evolution, it’s unwise to hope that our brain’s adaptation to the modern age will take place in our lifetime. However, we know because of the technological advances that we CAN change and control our brain and its workings. We can also make intentional choices of lifestyle, communicating and connecting to others with which we can enhance our mental health and well being.
5 tips to control your stress-response and stay calm
1. Understand anxiety
Take advantage of the benefits of living in the 21st century by accessing all relevant information. Here are a handful of articles on the nature and symptoms of anxiety:
2. Feel the present moment when stress floods you
Grounding is a great technique when you get upset or carried away with strong emotions. The purpose of grounding is to bring your mind to the present moment. There are many different techniques to choose from.
You could focus your attention on your body:
- feel your feet on the floor and experience the sensations of warmness, coldness, softness or hardness.
- clap or rub your hands together and closely follow the sensations that arise.
- name objects around you that are of a particular colour.
- count back from a hundred in increments of 17.
Check out how one of the above grounding techniques calms your brain.
3. Engage in a creative and enjoyable activity
Did you enjoy knitting, beading, drawing or puzzles when you were a child? Reignite the passion for any craft related activity that you used to love. If your skills need brushing up, then don’t hesitate to browse the many enthusiastically shared videos on youtube.
You’ll notice when you’re doing a creative activity your brain immediately calms down. Your focus will shift on the challenge you are undertaking. The ‘multitasking brain’ is a fallacy. Consequently, your brain cannot worry while it is paying undivided attention to your activity at hand.
Do you want to give it a go? Do you remember folding paper boats and aeroplanes when you were a child? Check out how to make an origami swan here: youtu.be/f0zTNCRg-Uc
Does your job support your well-being or it adds to your overall stress level? Here is list of low stress jobs you may consider taking on.
4. Why yoga?
Through the union of body, mind and breath, yoga as a practice, can teach you to be consciously present. It facilitates the development of physical and mental flexibility and deep, abdominal breathing. Why is this important?
Firstly, focusing on the present moment has a calming effect on the mind. No one can ruminate whilst in the Warrior 2 pose (above).
Secondly, there is a certain amount of intended discomfort in the asanas (the yoga poses). And that is exactly the point: to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. That is the lesson to learn in order to cope better with life. This skill will help protect you from a full flung and hard to control stress response.
Thirdly, assisting the mind and the body is the abdominal breathing utilised in yoga. This switches on the parasympathetic (or rest and digest) nervous system. Equilibrium is achieved.
For those wanting a more authentic take on this question from a mystic yogi, listen to Sadhguru here.
5. Establish daily balance
Easier said than done: spend more time outdoors! The positive effects of nature on us are immeasurable. If you could balance your indoor activities with some outdoor ones you would feel your mood lifting.
If cannot do it daily try to get out at least two or three times a week. Rain or shine the hilltop, the beach or the park in the neighbourhood is there for you to discover its magic. Make it fun: take a few photos, write a journal about your outings, use an app to motivate you or even better: go with a friend!