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Taming the Fight-or-Flight Dragon... kinda

What does reading in front of your 7th grade class and being engaged by a surface-to-air missile have in common? Both trigger our ancient and elegant Acute Stress Response (aka Fight-or-Flight) mechanism, generating a cascade of powerful physiological phenomena throughout the pharmaceutical plant we call our bodies.

You know the feeling. Increased respiration, quickening heartrate, tense muscles, and so on. Real or perceived, when a threat stimulus (visual, auditory, etc.) reaches that collection of nuclei and structures within the interior of our brains called the limbic system, a pair of teeny tiny clumps called amygdalae scream “WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!” A signal is transmitted to our hypothalamus, which then generates a barrage of electro-chemical signals to our sympathetic nervous system, inundating organs with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline). Simultaneously, the same hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland, which in turn signals the adrenal glands to start pumping cortisol, the “stress hormone”, into our bloodstream. There’s nothing “wrong” with you. This is automatic. This happens without your vote.

It is a magnificently effective system… to help you fight off a hyena or flee a grizzly. It’s a bit of overkill when you’re just trying to give a quarterly sales update to some senior execs.

While physical danger does still exist, such as violent crime or dog attacks, the preponderance of our modern “threats” are social and somewhat complex. A cavewoman who just rescued her child from a sabretooth would probably laugh at the thought of me being stressed by a job interview, right? That said, there is no on-off switch for our built-in fight-or-flight response. It just happens. So, how can we cope?

A principal division of our nervous system is called the peripheral, further divided into the autonomic and somatic. The autonomic includes our sympathetic nervous system, hardwired to a lot of organs and body parts we can’t directly control. For example, your pupils dilate and your heart beats at a given rate based on automatic stimuli. Your somatic nervous system, on the other hand, is under your direction. It allows you to kick a ball or play the piano… and control your breathing.

When your sympathetic nervous system is activated in response to a perceived threat, your breathing shallows, the rate increases, and the bronchi going into each lung widen so as to oxygenate your blood in preparation for a brawl or a sprint. (Great for the sabretooth, bad for the interview). Fortunately, with your somatic nervous system, you can control a few elements that will then ripple backwards through the fight-or-flight response to dial down the intensity.

First, choose to change your breathing! Deep and slow. Deep and slow. By overriding that automatically shallow and quick respiration, you’re commanding your system to calm down. It has no choice but to respond. Secondly, with a sudden spike in blood pressure and rush of adrenaline, your muscles are primed to survive an attack. Reverse engineer that phenomenon. Pick a major muscle group, such as your thighs, hamstrings, and glutes. Contract the muscles (without hurting yourself!), hold, and release slooooowly. As you do, feel yourself melting. Then repeat. And repeat.

Neither deep breathing nor muscle melting will eliminate the “threat”; however, you’ll find that the intensity of your body’s autonomic response will take your lead. In relaxing your body, you’ll also find that your mind is more capable of rational thought, of perspective, of logic. You’re likely to realize: “This is a sales presentation, not an MMA cage fight. This is an interview, not a tree climb to avoid wolves”.

Your initial reaction to a threat is automatic. Your subsequent response is up to you.


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