So today I want to talk a little about what happens when we are feeling stressed or anxious and what we can do about it. So when we are stressed and/or anxious our fight/flight response kicks in. Now most people have heard of this but might not know much about how it impacts our functioning. So what is it – its an evolutionary response to keep us alive, so if you imagine it’s the caveman days and up comes a sabre-toothed tiger, our brain recognises the threat and triggers a whole bunch of changes in the body, all designed to give us the strength and stamina to fight the threat or out run it (hence flight). Things that happen include:
– Short shallow breathing, increased blood pressure, and increased heart rate to get the oxygen all around the body quickly
– Tense muscles – ready for action
– Sweating – to cool the body down
– The blood flow in the body flows away from our organs to the big muscle groups in our arms and legs because at that point in time its not important to digest your food, what’s important is fighting or running
– On the extreme end someone might experience diarrhoea and vomiting as the body tries to get rid of any excess weight
– In the brain the blood flows away from the front of our brain (the part that basically does everything that makes us human and not just animal) and instead flows to the lower back part of our brain that is in charge of instinctual things like breathing, heart rate, appetite, and scanning the environment for more danger
– A number of chemicals are released into our system such as adrenalin and cortisol so we have that burst of energy and stamina
So all this stuff is great for when we get attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger, however in today’s day and age our ‘threats’ are rarely physical, they are more likely to be our own thoughts, or expectations, or workload. They aren’t things we can fight or run away from but we are still experiencing the rapid heart rate, and shallow breathing, excess sweating and shaking, feeling keyed up and fidgety, the butterflies in the tummy and nauseas, lack of appetite and inability to sleep (how is going to sleep going to help you when there is a sabre-toothed tiger lurking around). But worse still are the impacts of lack of blood to the front part of our brain. This means we can’t concentrate, or focus, we have difficulty with our memory, we have trouble managing our emotions, we can’t problem solve, we can’t even effectively listen when this part of our brain is out of action. That doesn’t set us up to be in a good place to decide how to fix our ‘threats’.
So what can you do about it? You need to down regulate your fight/flight response the blood all goes back to where it should be so that you can do whatever you need to. So the two best ways to do that are exercise and relaxation.
- Exercise – this down regulates the fight/flight response because that is what the body is designed to do with it. You are supposed to run or fight, that uses up the adrenalin and cortisol, works those tense muscles (and gives you a boost of endorphins as a bonus) and after that your brain will be working more effectively so you can problem solve or focus on that huge workload, or simply realise a thought is just that – a thought and it doesn’t need to be believed or acted on.
- Relaxation – the most simple and effective form of relaxation is to simply slow your breathing down and make sure its diaphragmic breathing. You can’t just will your heart rate or blood pressure down, or will your body into reducing the adrenalin its releasing but if you slow your breathing down it will also slow down your heart rate and in turn allow the blood flow to all return to where it should be.
So next time you notice you your stress levels have gotten to a point that you are no longer productive, or your anxiety is making you miss out of life, try one of these strategies to get yourself back on track.