The importance of calming your flight or fight response
The familiar sound of your alarm clock snaps you out of dream land; and with it, the well-known feeling of being against that clock immediately falls into place… Sound familiar?
We are all rushing these days. But why is that so bad?
If you are among the growing population of stressed-out career people who feel anxious on a daily basis, or if you are a busy mother or you’re caring for a family member while feeling that there are never enough hours in the day — then this pressure, over time, can put you in the danger zone for burnout.
Those of us with a packed schedule, a stack of responsibilities and the guilt pangs to make us do it all despite our wishes to relax, are very prone to pushing ourselves until we can push no more. When we reach burnout, our physical and mental symptoms can stop us in our tracks. This is the difference between being stressed but soldering on, and being too tired to dig ourselves out of our own trap.
The term ‘burnout’ is fairly new to our world. Not yet in the standard dictionaries, but relevant enough for urbandictionary.com – however, I feel this is one colloquialism that’s here to stay.
Why? Because we are not about to turn our pandemic of busyness and stress around anytime soon, and certainly not without a huge campaign of awareness and intervention on a societal scale. We are working ourselves into ill health.
Why sleep can’t be our only rest
It’s scary but true that some of us just don’t have much down time anymore. We sleep, which allows us to recover just enough to get up the next day, and then we go headfirst into busyness again. Even lunch breaks are becoming a ‘nice to have’, rather than a necessity. What we may not realize while we are living this way, is that the thing that keeps us going is more than just momentum. It’s actually low-level stress, always running in the background.
If you have noticed the quiet rattle of anxiety when you aren’t actually in serious danger, or the inability to just chill out without the help of alcohol, that’s because your nervous system is keeping you more on edge than you really need to be. Over time, things can get really out of balance, and the hormones that flood our bloodstream as a response to the flight or fight brain signals really start to affect our health in many ways.
Alongside the quick adrenalin hit we get when something stresses us, we also get a boost in cortisol. This hormone is essential to our waking and sleeping pattern, but in excess causes a host of long-term problems.
Prolonged exposure to stress leads to constantly elevated cortisol, which can make you anxious, irritable or depressed.
According to Gallup, 79% of Americans feel stress regularly. The biggest reported stressors in this study were work and children. When asked if they felt they had enough time in the day to do everything they needed to do, 41% reported they did not. The age category most affected was 30-49, typically our busiest years for career and family. It’s no wonder that we don’t switch off from our responsibilities on a regular basis, when many of us are feeling this sort of time pressure daily.
But when we do rest during our waking hours, we are allowing our body and mind to cool down that flight or fight response. Over time and with persistent rest and recovery, our cortisol levels in turn drop back down to where they should be.
Of course, there is also the issue of our tech habits keeping us awake and ‘wired’ too late into the evenings. We understand that the light from the screens we look at can also affect our nervous system, specifically our circadian rhythm. While this is too big a topic to get into in this post; suffice to say that constant email checking and social media isn’t helping our situation. Being on social media before we go to bed, and when we first wake up in the morning is only compounding our problems.
Meditation is the ultimate reset button
Much more than a new age buzzword, meditation is the ultimate reset for our nervous system. Sitting quietly, breathing mindfully, and following a guide if you like are amazing ways to take down time in between your busy day and being asleep.
Good sleep is absolutely essential of course; both for cellular repair and mental wellbeing. But when we are asleep we don’t get to choose what we dream about. Something amazing about meditation is that we can choose what to meditate on; gratitude, self-forgiveness, or calming down our busy monkey minds are great things to focus on!
Taking a little time each day to focus on ourselves, to think about something positive (rather than worrying about work or bills), and to reset our mental chatter goes a really long way. If you find it too hard to meditate because of all the mental chatter, then I think that’s a sign you need it more than ever!
Of course, I’m not saying that if you squeeze in a few minutes of mediation each day, then you can afford to rush around the rest of the time. This is not a silver bullet! There are so many more things you can do to gently lower your stress, increase your resting while awake, and improve your overall quality of life.
The most sustainable changes are the small ones. So here are a few little steps to take each day.
- Gently introduce boundaries
I’m not suggesting that you start flatly refusing to do anything for anyone. Sudden and drastic changes would feel scary to you, and unnerving to everyone around you. I’m talking about little ‘nos’ here and there, where you feel they will benefit you. But do you remember that tech problem I mentioned? The demands of others are more present than ever when we are available 24/7, so perhaps one boundary to consider could be not picking up messages during the evening – just a thought!
There are offline pressures to consider too. Perhaps you tend to get fully booked with social occasions. Turning down the odd invitation here and there will give you a little more time to yourself. If you are an introvert then you may notice that it’s not just the hours you would have spent at that event you gain back, but also the recovery time you would have needed after socializing.
Where can you set a boundary, or say a ‘little no’ today?
- Treat time in nature as a priority
There are numerous psychological studies on the effects of nature on our mental wellbeing. This effect is even more noticeable if you live or work in a city. Seeking out those green spaces and taking a bit of ‘you’ time can be truly restorative.
Whatever you do, try to incorporate as much nature as possible. Whether it’s a 5-minute diversion through a park on your way to work, or a full-on weekend hike, the health and mental wellbeing benefits are enormous. Small changes really add up. If you can take little breaks in natural daylight you can lift your mood and lower your stress on a daily basis.
- Actively recover to ‘shake it off’
There is a popular book by Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, that explains the human problem with our flight or fight response. If you are not familiar with the book, I will just explain the zebra theme really simply here.
When a zebra is chased by a lion its flight or fight response kicks in and it runs. If the zebra escapes, and once the stressor, that lion, is gone then there is no need for the zebra to remain in that stressed state. The zebra shakes, stomps around, twitches, and generally runs off the excess adrenaline, soon returning to its normal state. This is an instinctive response, and as Sapolsky suggests in his book, that’s the end of the trauma for the zebra.
Now imagine a human in a situation that sets of a flight or fight response – and it doesn’t have to be genuinely life threatening like being chased by a lion. We have very strong stress responses to much less serious events.
When something happens to us, and especially if it happens during working hours, we can’t just shake and stamp it out in the office, right? Our more primitive brain regions may trigger a smaller response – we do shake and shiver after a big shock, for example. But generally, and especially with lower level stressors that we try to ignore, that excess adrenaline and energy is just stuck in us, and we are stuck with it.
When you think about how much low-level stress may be present in a typical office-based job, and how much of that time we are sat down at our desk – you can see where we are missing a trick. The best antidote to a stressful day isn’t necessarily an evening on the sofa, consuming alcohol and takeaway food, as tempting as that sounds. If you have spent the day sitting in a low-level stress situation, then active recovery is a great idea to detox a little. Gentle exercise that gets the heart pumping and the blood moving can help to flush out some of that residual adrenalin sitting in your body, as well as giving yourself an endorphin lift.
But just a little disclaimer – this is a great daily choice for people dealing with low-level stress. If your stress is particularly high from something serious or life threatening, I am not suggesting you ‘shake it off’ and go to Pilates. A really big hit of adrenaline from genuine fear will be followed by a big energy dip. These are the times it is appropriate to rest with your feet up. So please do look after yourself!
I hope these small daily changes help you. Just remember to take it one step at a time. The smallest changes are the most likely to stick in the long term.
☞ If you are worried that your lifestyle may be affecting you, you might like to take this quiz to assess your current risk of burnout. 👀
This article was first published on AndreaPennington.com