Is Everyday Fight Or Flight?

I just finished a CBT course (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and some things really stood out for me.

One of the biggest is what a blunt drug Adrenalin is.

Our bodies are wired for survival.  When our caveman selves saw a threat to our fragile being, we got a big dose of adrenalin and its related hormones.  This helped us either run away or beat the heck out of the scary thing.

For some reason we haven’t evolved all that much, even though the things that threaten us have moved on considerably.

What Adrenalin Does:
Adrenalin and its associated hormones are triggered by our Sympathetic Nervous System.  This is automatic.  It gets us ready for a major surge of energy.
Heart rate increases                  Breathing becomes quicker and shallower
More glucose is released              Blood pressure increases
Pupils dilate sharpened vision   Cuts back saliva – dry mouth
Slows/stops digestion               Sends blood to muscles, twitchy, on edge
Inhibits immune system

In our brain, we become solution focused, scan for other threats and are action oriented.  Our mind wants to get us out of this dangerous situation as fast as possible.

To give us this increased strength, our body has to shut down a few other parts. It pulls blood away from the areas of the brain where we learn, create and imagine.  This isn’t what’s needed when we’re under threat.  It also shuts down our digestive system while we are adrenalin fuelled.

So back at the office…
Today, the things that feel threatening are usually not physical – certainly not a lion at our cave.  Our fight or flight mechanism can be triggered by an aggressive email, someone saying “Can I have a word”, the possibility of missing a deadline or being late for a meeting.

None of these things are going to kill us, but our sympathetic system doesn’t know that.  It can’t tell the difference, a threat is a threat and the adrenalin comes shooting out to get us prepared.

Now let’s think about that.  If you are bouncing on your chair feeling desperate to DO something, if you feel your heart pounding and notice your fists are clenched, you are in the throws.

Your body, with its blunt thrust of adrenalin has prepared you to run away “sorry, just off, I’ll catch up with you later”.  Alternatively, it’s prepared you to charge over to the person that initiated the threat and squash them into oblivion.

You can easily stay in this state, as long as you are chewing on the problem.  If you continue to think about the thing that felt threatening, you continue to pump adrenalin.  To compound things, you are now wired to LOOK for threats, you may start seeing them even when they aren’t really there.

Sometimes, you notice these symptoms, your heart is pounding, your breathing has gotten weird and you feel like you might pass out. This can increase your anxiety and guess what – your brain perceives that as a threat and offers you up some more adrenalin.

About the bits your nervous system shut down
To rush blood to your heart, lungs and muscles, your brain shuts down your digestive system and your immune system.  If you stay in this state a long while, your guts are going to hurt and you are susceptible to every germ that walks your way on public transport.

It’s also messing with your creative mojo.  In this survival state you can’t relax and let your imagination wonder.  It’s difficult to concentrate. You can’t think about nonessential things like art, culture or even fun.

How does this impact your career?
You need your imaginative thinking.  You need your digestive and immune system to be in good working order to enjoy your job.

And it is so much easier to chat with someone who is calm, relaxed and open.  When someone’s talking at you with a whole tsunami of words, you can bet they are flying on adrenalin.

Take control and reclaim your sense of ease
Anxiety and relaxation are incompatible.  You are in one state or the other.

The first step is being aware that you have been hijacked by adrenalin.

Then use any of the relaxation techniques that work for you.  Tense and release your muscles in sequence from head to toe.  Go for a brisk walk.  Picture a calm relaxing scene and surrender to it.  Work your way through a favourite song or a poem.  Try some deep breathing.

The Neuroanatomist, Jill Bolte Taylor says, in one of her amazing Ted Talks, that it only takes 90 seconds for adrenalin to clear our system, just a minute and a half.

The reason we continue on in our agitated state is because we keep revisiting the threatening thoughts and releasing new waves of our fight or flight drug.

You can control this.  Recognize that anxiety and relaxation cannot cohabitate.

If you can shift your thoughts, if you can make yourself relax you can reconnect with all the good stuff.

Your digestion clicks back into action and your stomach ache goes away.  Your immune system begins to protect you again and delightfully your ability to learn, create and imagine opens up.

Now that sounds better.  With a relaxed state of mind you can enjoy yourself, you’ll feel confident and or course you’ll feel more secure.

If you have a favourite way to shift gears, a good technique for relaxation, please share it with us in the box below.

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