In previous columns, I described what happens when your mind triggers a stress response. If you recall, the phrase fight-or-flight refers to your body’s mobilization of energy to confront or run away from potential threats to your well-being. The Fight-or-Flight Response is also known as Alarm—your body’s initial response to a threat. This ability to mobilize energy to fight or flee goes all the way back to the days of cavemen and women who either fought or ran away from real threats such as saber-toothed tigers who threatened their existence. This ability to fight or flee when threatened allowed them to survive and thrive
Like our earliest ancestors, we still have this ability to mobilize strength and energy to fight or flee, but we rarely have the opportunity to use it when confronted with most modern-day threats. While threats can represent actual physical harm such as a person coming towards you with a gun, most modern-day threats are more subtle. The irate boss, traffic jam, inconsiderate salesclerk, and excessively demanding relative, while not life-threatening, still trigger the same intense Alarm stress response as the saber-toothed tiger.
The Alarm response is acute, intense, and necessary for survival. It does not cause harm to your body; rather, it is designed to save your life. Without it, you would not have an immediate response to life-threatening situations. If, however, the stressor that triggered it is not dealt with through fighting or fleeing, or if it is chronic and persists for long periods of time, your body must shift into a lower-level type of stress response. It simply cannot keep the intense, energy-demanding alarm response alive indefinitely.
To cope with chronic stressors that are not life-threatening, your body moves into the Resistance phase of the stress response. Resistance is similar to Alarm in that it requires the body to mobilize energy to confront the stressor, but it differs in several key ways.
The same body parts (adrenal glands, skeletal muscles, etc.) and systems (nervous, endocrine, muscular, etc.) mobilized during alarm are still working, but at a less intense level. Your body is not at rest nor is it in the throes of the alarm response; it is somewhere in between.
The result of being in the resistance response is similar to an automobile that is out of tune and idles faster than it should. The engine works harder simply to keep itself operating normally. It uses more gas, performs less efficiently, and just doesn’t run well.
Think about what you are like when you suffer from chronic stress. Physically, you are restless, your mind races, your muscles are tight and achy, and you just can’t seem to relax.
You don’t sleep very well, and you usually wake up tired. Psychologically, you are on edge and easily upset. You get angry and snap at people at the slightest thing.
Sometimes the relaxation strategies we’ve talked about in past columns just don’t seem to work. You don’t have the patience to just sit and meditate or use your mind to shift your focus off of the stressors that are troubling you.
When that happens, you need to release your stress-related tension and nervous energy in more active ways. This is why I created Release as the next line of defense against stress. Release uses physical activity and exercise to use up your nervous energy and tension in healthy ways.
In the next few columns, I’ll talk about Release as a line of defense against stress and show you a few of my favorite release techniques.
Until then, remember to Stress Less and Live More.