When I was 7 years old, my family took a road trip from Indiana to California via Arizona. There was a sandstorm and we went to Disney. Those two things are about all I remember—well—except for the Pacific Ocean.
Although I had grown up near Lake Michigan (which sure looks like an ocean to a 7-year-old), I seemed to understand that there was something far more majestic and dangerous about the Pacific. I stood respectfully at its edge, next to my mom, who was holding my sister; who stood next to my dad, who was holding my brother.
Then—a violent wave.
For my life.
To the car.
Even though it’s been a few decades, I can still remember standing there gulping for breath, terrified, but grateful to be alive. Momentarily I heard my mother calling my name. Actually she was screaming. Then it occurred to me that my mom thought I had been swept out to sea. Honest mistake on her part, given the swiftness with which I had disappeared. When that wave hit the shore, there was no rational thought. My brain shut off, my body went to work.
This response to danger is called fight-or-flight and was first identified in animals. It is a God-given, physiological response that is quite amazing. When we sense a threat to our survival, our brains and our bodies are flooded with stress hormones. These chemicals heighten our senses, increase our heart rates, shallow our breathing, quicken our muscles and pour every ounce of strength we have into one singular task: survival.
Fight-or-flight makes us run faster and/or stand to face our enemies. It allows mothers to lift cars off children and unleashes physical capabilities that would otherwise be dormant. All non-essential bodily functions are temporarily shut down. Digestion, reproduction and rational thought are irrelevant. Can you imagine pausing to eat a cheeseburger, get pregnant, or solve a calculus problem while fighting off an angry bear?
Intense as they are, these stress hormones are designed to subside the moment we no longer need them. Once the danger has passed, our brain is supposed to release a chemical to signal the “all-clear.” At that point, everything goes back to normal. We can return to our dining and procreating and pursuing world peace. But here’s the problem: our brains have a real tendency get confused. Our stressful environments combined with our habits of abusing our bodies leave many of us in a constant state of arousal. Traffic jams, parking tickets, screaming babies, long lines at the grocery store or irritable mothers feel as threatening to us as an angry bear or 10-foot wave.
We are well-aware there is a link between stress and infertility, digestion problems and trouble concentrating. This is why. The stress chemicals that are so useful to us in very concentrated and very temporary doses leak out into our bodies at inopportune times and marinate our brains and other vital organs. With no place to go, these chemicals can begin to suck the very life out of us.
In order to thrive well in this world, to regulate emotions, tolerate discomfort, express ourselves appropriately and have meaningful relationships, we must learn to manage these stress hormones.
Here are five things you can start doing today to get things in check:
- Breathe. When our bodies are in fight-or-flight, our breathing becomes quick and shallow (called over breathing). This is quite helpful if we need to take off and run, but otherwise, it just exacerbates feelings of anxiety. When you consciously slow your breath down, by inhaling and filling your lungs with air, and slowly exhaling, it reminds your brain that everything is okay. You wouldn’t be breathing like that if you were being chased! A simple breathing exercise, called square breathing, is to inhale for four counts, hold it for four counts, then release for four counts. Do this four times to make a “square.”
- Be mindful. Mindfulness means using all 5 of our senses to engage with current moment. Take a moment to notice your surroundings. What do you see, hear, taste, touch and smell? Mindfulness doesn’t solve your problems, but it can give your brain a much-needed distraction so you can think a little more clearly. One simple mindfulness exercise is to find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can touch.
- Be grateful. No matter how bad things are, there is always something you can be thankful for. So your car may not have A/C, but aren’t you grateful you can drive to work? The quickest way to be grateful for something is to try to imagine your life without it. I am typing madly away on my keyboard — I can’t imagine not having my 10 fingers! Gratitude doesn’t make our problems go away, but it does allow us to co-exist with them a little more easily.
- Exercise. All those fight-or-flight chemicals swirling around in our bodies can make us feel extremely restless. So go out and take a walk! Ride your bike. If you can’t get outside, run up and down the stairs a few times, or do some gentle stretching. Help your body release those chemicals naturally.
- Talk about it. It’s amazing how just speaking our fears out loud can make them less scary. Sometimes all we need is a friend to look us in the eye, nod their head, and say, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way.” It’s obviously important to share with someone you know will validate you (past history is a good indicator!) But support groups and therapy can also be an excellent source of validation. If talking’s not your thing, try writing your feelings on paper. The idea is to get them out of you.
When triggered at appropriate moments, the body’s fight-or-flight system is an amazing response. However, it is all too easy for this system to malfunction, leaving us feeling completely out of control. These five strategies can help you calm your body down so you can work smart, not hard.