Be the best YOU you can be

Boo! The Fight/Flight/Fright Response

Humans evolved to cope with short, sharp bursts of stress – in hunting, for example. However, modern day living and working means that for many people there are almost constant stressors in life. As well as being constant, those stressors also tend to be less physical and more nebulous – such as the number of e-mails in our inbox, or a lack of work/life balance.

So, why is this the case? What’s going on in our brains and bodies? What can we do about it?

The brain is made up of 3 main parts: brain stem, limbic system and prefrontal cortex.

If you were to hold your hand in the air, the brain stem would be the equivalent of your upper arm, wrist and palm. This is often called the lizard brain – it is the part of the brain which was the first to evolve in living animals, and is the primitive part of our brain capacity. It houses basic functions such as motor skills and breathing. However, it is essential, as it is through the brain stem that the rest of the brain connects and communicates with the body.

Following the metaphor, if you were to fold in your thumb and little finger, these would represent the parts of the brain that evolved next – the limbic system – often called the monkey brain. It is in this part of our brain that we feel emotions, for example. Information that comes into our brain often hits the limbic system first, for us to assess and respond to.

The limbic system is made up of the amygdala and the hypothalamus, amongst others. I often call the limbic system the ‘meerkat’ brain. In our early history, our monkey brain would take in information and assess it for threats. If we saw a shape in the savannah, our meerkat would assume it was a lion, and would fire off hormones and messages to make us take flight. The limbic system wants to protect us. This worked fine when lions were a big threat to us. However, in most countries, this isn’t the case – and that shape may well be a rock.

In modern living, those potential threats are not always as tangible. There are far more potential threats in our environments. They are potential threats – until our brains have assessed that risk.

The limbic system is the first part of our brain to assess that risk – and it if it is on constant high alert, it has all manner of effects in the body. When our limbic system reacts, we can respond in a variety of ways – fight, flight, freeze, fawn or fright.

Ideally, when we see that shape in the savannah, the most recently developed part of our brains comes into play. In the hand metaphor, if you bend your fingers over your thumb, this would represent the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is the ‘human’ brain, where we do all of our complex thinking and strategising. It is the area of the brain where we calm our meerkat. For example, when seeing that shape in the savannah, our PFC would tell our limbic system that the shape is unlikely to be a lion, living in the UK, and that it’s just a rock.

This would stand down the limbic system and all the messages that it sends our bodies. The limbic reaction is faster than that of the prefrontal cortex (the limbic messaging system is closer to the information receptors). Therefore we act before we think.

Being in the meerkat mode, our limbic system sends messages to the rest of our body to prepare it for one of its usual reactions (fight/flight etc). Cortisol and adrenaline are released. It sends blood to our muscles, and away from our inner organs, to prepare us to flee or fight, with the speed or strength. Our heart rate increases and our breathing speeds up to increase the amount of oxygen we take in.

This is all good for running away from a lion. It’s not so good when it’s a response to a long to do list or pile of unread emails where there is unlikely to be an end point in the near future.

Our bodies want to return to normality after the initial burst of fear/anger etc. Our bodies want to return to a state of homeostasis – normal, relaxed functions. However, with chronic stress this doesn’t happen, which can cause significant problems for our bodies and also our emotions and minds.

Among the problems caused are: Chronic pain, anxiety and depression, migraines, hypertension, sleep and insomnia issues, irritable bowel symptoms. It can also cause a supressed immune system, leaving us more vulnerable to catching bugs.

The physical effects of chronic stress can have a significant impact on the quality of our lives. It can start to affect our ability to do our jobs, perhaps through loss of concentration or days off ill. This then impacts the National Health Service. Without treatment, the physical symptoms, or perhaps the emotional and mental difficulties such as anxiety and depression could worsen.

The first step in managing chronic stress is recognising the symptoms in yourself.

Create a regular practice of noticing how you’re feeling – both mentally and physically. Are there any stressors in your life, whether they’re tangible or not? Are you experiencing any of the stress symptoms? Is there a near-future end point to the stressor?

If not, what can you do?

Many people visit their GPs, and are treated with antidepressants. For many people this is exactly what they need – it helps manage symptoms until the stressor goes away. However, some people prefer more natural solutions – or solutions where they are more in control. Perhaps the stressors are unlikely to go away – such as a health or family issue.

While we are in a chronic stress state, healing cannot occur.

What we try and do for ourselves is to reduce the impact of the stressor. We try to give our meerkat a break, and enable our prefrontal cortex to choose our REaction.

Having recognised your stress symptoms – the first step in managing them – there are a number of ways of calming our meerkats. Which one you choose will depend on your lifestyle and interests.

Meditation has long been proved to have a deeply beneficial effect on stress. The relaxed states we achieve enable our meerkat to calm down, climb off the table it’s screaming from, and sit quietly in the corner. You can achieve similar effects with a number of hobbies. Going for walks in nature has also been proved to help us ground ourselves, take a breath and enable us to manage our stressors better. Being creative or talking to a friend can help.

Ultimately it is the recognition that you are suffering from chronic stress, and you need to do something about it – the recognition itself – which starts you on the path to managing your symptoms.

In this essay I haven’t yet talked about the link between our thoughts and the subsequent perceived threats, and therefore stress that we suffer from. That’s step two, and is worth a separate blog altogether.

I’ll leave you with two thoughts:

  1. As well as watching out for stress symptoms, watch out for your inner voice – listen to what it’s saying to you. If it’s turning into your Inner Critic, tell it to stop, and replace it with your Inner Champion. Practice this, and see the difference it makes to your day.

  2. Sometimes stress is good for us. Without a little bit of stress, we would lose some of the fire in our lives – the motivation to achieve or to look forward to something.

I wish you positive stress in your lives as you go about your day.

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