Despite what we’d like to think we haven’t really evolved too far from our primitive cousins. Yes, we may be smarter, live longer, dress better and maybe even eat better but our genetic make-up is still pretty similar.
I am talking about the way in which we deal with stressful situations.
During the times of our primitive cousins, most stressful situations were life or death type situations. They had big scary animals roaming the land ready to eat them (or be eaten), kings and queens ready to lob off their heads if they said the wrong thing, seas ready to send them to Davy Jones’ locker just because they wanted to start a new life in the colonies or warlords ready to rape and pillage their villages without so much as a polite “by your leave”.
To cope with these stressful situations, our bodies developed the fight/flight response. When confronted with these stressful situations, our brain goes into automatic pilot and prepares the body to fight or to run. It’s like when mild-mannered Clark Kent goes into the phone booth and emerges as Superman (except ours in automatic, while Clark has to find a phone booth, make sure it’s free and make sure no one is watching….). Or when Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk (Don’t make me angry – you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…).
When the fight/flight response is triggered, our heart rate increases, breathing speeds up, blood is drawn to our muscles, adrenalin pumps through our blood stream and our reflexes are more acute – all to prepare the body for action. You’ve heard the stories of people exhibiting “super strength” and “super speed” in times of crisis? Well, that’s our fight/flight response amping up.
These days however, our stresses aren’t as life-threatening. This doesn’t mean that our stresses aren’t confronting, scary or threatening in some way – just that they aren’t life-threatening. For example, you are about to go out and meet the girls for a night out, but you are worried that LeShonda (the catty alpha in your group) is going to diss your outfit in front of everyone again. Or you are heading home for Christmas and you are worried that your crazy old grandma is going to take out her teeth and give you a smooch on the mouth again like last year (you’re still not 100% convinced that she slipped in the tongue by accident).
On top of these “special occasions”, there are normal day-to-day stresses as well – when someone cuts front of you in traffic, when the check-out chick short changes you, when strangers rudely jostle you on the street (particularly when you are just minding your own business!), when D’Shawn (your baby daddy) calls you by another woman’s name, when Narelle ate the last piece of apple pie despite you declaring dibs on it – you get the picture!
But our bodies haven’t caught up with modern times. Much like the constant (and pointless) revival of 80’s fashion. Our bodies will react to these situations by triggering the flight/fight response. Unfortunately, running or fighting isn’t going to be helpful in all of today’s stressful situations (Ok, maybe we can run and hide from grandma – but she’ll catch you – mark my words!). Instead, we have to sit there and take it. We are constantly told to “suck it up”, to “calm down girlfriend” and to “check yourself before you wreck yourself”. No running or fighting involved, unless we want the police to show up!
Moreover, these constant stresses mean that we are almost always running on the fight/flight response. As a matter of fact, we are so used to it that we don’t even realise that we are. If we are always on the verge of running a marathon, or ready to fight like Spartacus in the Colosseum, our bodies don’t get the rest that it needs to recover.
The common results of being the Hulk for extended periods of time include high blood pressure, alcohol dependencies, diabetes, panic disorders, constipation, depression, erectile dysfunction, hypertension and ulcers. Unfortunately thinking that we are Superman, we make excuses and normalise these symptoms: My heartbeat is fast because I have a high metabolism. Get off my back – every man has this problem at least once (OK – so it’s been 3 months but gimme a break, right?) in their lives! It’s normal – there is a history of high blood pressure in my family. I work too hard – that’s why I am always tired. I only drink a bottle of Scotch every night – that’s not a lot – you should see how much that old lush Winchester drinks….
So what can we do to return to the Bruce Banner state of mind? One way is to know when you’re becoming the Hulk and to intentionally control that response by trying to relax. I know – when you’re angry or upset, it’s not helpful when someone tells you to relax! But if you remember to take a few deep breaths as a first reaction, you’re on your way towards the relaxation response.
The relaxation response requires practice. A stress reaction happens automatically through an external event while the relaxation response has to come intentionally from within. The relaxation response requires a bit of practice for it to become second nature. Every conscious action you take to relax will turn back the effects of the fight/flight response. By concentrating on the relaxation response, you will be able to lower your heart rate and blood pressure, breathe more deeply, lower your pulse rate and decrease muscle tension.
If you think about it, both the fight/flight response and the relaxation response have a lot in common – both are natural responses, both can be automatic responses, we have the ability to achieve both responses effortlessly with practice and concentration, both can be used by anyone and more importantly both work towards protecting us without requiring us to believe that it works!