“Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Ever felt your heart race when you misjudge your step on a flight of stairs or felt your ears virtually “prick” when you hear something go bump in the night? These physical reactions are part of your body’s natural response to danger, and they’re designed to help keep you out of harm’s way. Known as the fight-flight-freeze response, it’s a built-in safety or survival mechanism that allowed our ancient ancestors to protect themselves from very real dangers, such as saber-toothed tigers, but while reactions may be physical, they are triggered by psychological fear, meaning that perceived dangers prompt the same response… the stress response.
The Stress Response
Stress is often considered a modern-day ailment, but the body’s natural stress response has been fundamental to man’s survival throughout the ages. The physical effects of stress such as the quickening of the heart rate and sharpening of the senses were once crucial to ensure immediate danger could be dealt with by either taking “flight” (running away) or putting up a fight.
Today’s stresses are unlikely to revolve around such immediate life and death situations, but looming deadlines in the workplace, financial difficulties, and in the current climate, fear surrounding the challenges posed by the coronavirus outbreak can all be sources of perceived danger that trigger the same physical reactions. The fight-flight-freeze response is a mechanism designed to provide a short-term means of dealing with a sticky situation, but long-term exposure to psychological fears creates a prolonged stress response that eventually leads to stress related illness.
“Stress is the trash of modern life – we all generate it but if you don’t dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake your life.” – Danzae Pace
Fight, Flight, Freeze
Fighting or taking flight are active defence mechanisms, and freezing is essentially putting these mechanisms on hold. Also termed reactive immobility, when you freeze, your body experiences the same physiological changes, but you stay temporarily motionless while you get ready for your next move.
Psychological or perceived fear is conditioned, meaning it’s associated with a negative experience in the past. The response to it, whether it’s fight, flight, or freeze, isn’t a conscious decision that you can control, it’s innate and automatic. For this reason, dealing with the effects of stress is not about attempting to shut down the body’s natural response, it’s about finding ways to limit long-term exposure to triggers and managing the physical changes to “dispose of the trash” effectively.
Not all stress is a bad thing. In small doses, it can tone up the body’s reaction times, increase motivation, and add a bit of excitement to life, making it the fuel that promotes top performances in sport, business, and all other areas of life. It’s the continued exposure to the effects of the stress reaction that can be detrimental to health.
Regular exercise can help to manage the effects of stress on the body by providing a substitute for the anticipated “fight” or “flight”, but relaxation techniques also play a vital role in helping to limit and manage the psychological triggers that spark the hormonal and physical reactions.
Perceived dangers are different for everyone, but when you feel under threat, your brain is unable to differentiate between what’s real and what’s imagined, meaning the response is the same whether you’re face-to-face with a sabre-toothed tiger or sitting alone at home watching the latest doom-gloom-and destruction news headlines.
The more anxious you become about a situation, the more your body prepares for the imminent threat, and this leads to the prolonged stress response that eventually leads to stress related illness.
Relaxation techniques to help combat stress include:
- Centering, or deep abdominal breathing
- Positive self-talk and focusing on calming words
- Visualisation, and focusing on peaceful images
- And exercises connecting body and mind such as yoga or tai-chi
Perhaps most importantly of all, pay attention to the triggers in your life. Learn to recognise the situations that are prompting the stress response in your body and take steps to limit your exposure as well as looking for ways to manage the effects.
In the current lockdown situation, this may be as simple as limiting your exposure to “fake” news.
If you want to find out more about how to keep yourself grounded and optimistic in tough times please listen to the first part of my interview with David Smith M.B.E