Cancel ‘Red Alert’

We could all learn a lot about managing stress from our beloved pets.  Our pets live completely in the moment – they do not suffer as we do from ‘anticipating’ what might, maybe, potentially, but likely won’t, happen.  How often do you fabricate and repeat conversations in your head about what might happen, trying to anticipate every little nuance, of every little detail you can possibly imagine?  Anticipatory stress – “what-if-worrying.”

This ability to anticipate was one of the features of our brain that allowed for our rise to the top of the food chain.   Our ability to ‘predict’ what ‘might’ happen and to anticipate the ‘things’ that might kill us ensured our survival.  Combine this with our tendency to look for the negative (negative noticing – technically called negativity bias) – we see snakes not sticks, thorns not roses – and we have the perfect recipe for survival of the fittest in an eat-or-be-eaten world. 

Well done brain!  Bravo!

But in modern day society anticipatory stress and negativity bias is a killer combination.  The acute stress of the distant past (hungry lion, run!) has been superseded by the chronic stress of modern life (mortgage payment due… again.)  But we only have one stress response – the acute stress response – and it is ‘on’ all the time when we experience chronic stress.

Biologically speaking stress, is a threat to the body’s equilibrium and evolutionarily speaking the stress response – fight or flight – was designed to protect us.  The stress response is designed to trigger immediate action to:

  1. get me out of here; and
  2. remember the details of the situation for future reference.  

A small walnut sized bit of your brain called the amygdala, functions as your panic button.  Activate the panic button, and your ‘Red Alert’ system triggers your fight or flight response.  

For example – 10,000 years ago…. While your ancestor was off gathering wild blueberries, she thought she heard something, turned and out of the corner of her eye saw a snake.  “EEEK-EWWW.”  

Two things happen almost simultaneously.  One, the red alert system fires off a message to your pre-frontal cortex – the thinky part of your brain.  “What is this?” “What’s going on?” “Remember this is where the snake lives.”  Secondly, it sends a “get me out of here” signal to your body and activates the fight or flight response.  

Your adrenal glands (also a small walnut sized bit of tissue that sits atop each of your kidneys) function as your emergency response team and squirts adrenalin and cortisol (a couple of stress hormones) into your bloodstream, almost instantaneously once the red alert sounds.  Thinky brain is slow to react, but your body reacts in a flash triggering a cascade of events that prepares you to fight or make a run for it.  Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure increases, your breathing gets faster and deeper and blood is diverted from your gut to your muscles to be ready to run.  Most scarily, blood is also diverted from your brain to your muscles – and you are emotionally hi-jacked.  This is why you find it hard to think rationally when you are in fight or flight mode.  Meanwhile, thinky brain is busily reviewing files and comparing the situation to previous close encounters…. “Ah!  It’s ok, it’s a stick not a snake.  Cancel red alert!”  Whew safe and sound.

Your heart rate and breathing slow and return to normal, your blood pressure drops and you go about your daily business – just another day in the wild.  Your ancestor goes back to gathering blueberries.

But the chronic day to day stress of life in the 21st century is a different story.  We no longer encounter acute, life threatening situations on a daily basis.  This is a good thing! 

Nevertheless our panic button is constantly triggered.  The daily commute, a difficult co-worker, unreasonable self-imposed perfectionistic expectations – the stress list is endless.  We have replaced the hungry lion with a crabby co-worker!

To the brain stress is stress and it responds as it did centuries ago – with fight or flight.  The red alert is sounding all the time, and cortisol is flooding our bloodstream.  But these days, we rarely (if ever) need to run and well, fighting is just unacceptable.  Chronic stress impacts us emotionally and physically and contributes to just about all of the chronic diseases clogging up the emergency room.  

Some stress is a good thing and can have a positive influence on your brain.  

Too much stress, we get depressed or anxious.  Too little stress, we are bored.

It is a matter of balance.  As long as the stress is not too severe or prolonged, and with proper nutrition and sleep, we have adequate recovery… the brain repairs itself and we can actually thrive!

How can we temper the unrelenting stress of modern day society?  How do we turn off the red alert and stop the flood of cortisol?

  1. Recognize your own uniqueness;  Be genuinely you;
  2. Nourish your body with proper nutrition;
  3. Move! get and stay active but do not over do it;
  4. Get adequate sleep;
  5. Actively pursue relaxation;
  6. Learn to self-coach;
  7. Listen for the quiet whispers of your heart;
  8. And of course, learn from your beloved pet – cherish the moment!!

Easier said than done.  But well worth the effort.

Buff it up, my friends
Dr. Karen

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