The ‘flight-or-fight’ response is an automatic reaction to perceived danger. It is characterised by a flood of hormones (particularly adrenaline and cortisol) that elevate heart rate, blood pressure and short-term energy. This was a key part of our distant ancestor’s survival strategy – aiding them in encounters with predators and in other threatening situations by making them either fearless in a fight or fast in flight.
These days, however, when most of us are in relatively little danger of being eaten, this physiological safety mechanism is mostly just making us stressed. Most of us don’t live a life remotely similar to that of the ancient hunter-gatherers. The Savannah went from being our home to being our desktop screensaver. The dangers associated with life in the wild have been replaced by comparatively trivial concerns that, in the absence of any real threats, have come to have an outsized effect on our physiology – triggering the fight-or-flight response in many circumstances that don’t require anything so dramatic. Things like public speaking, being late for an engagement or being busy at work are not exactly life threatening, but our bodies aren’t getting the memo.
The result is that stress is playing a big part in our lives – with significant consequences. The American Institute of Stress summary of the potential effects of stress includes increased instances of depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart attacks, poor skin health, gastrointestinal complications (such as irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis) as well as immune system ineffectiveness. They conclude “It’s hard to think of any disease in which stress cannot play an aggravating role or any part of the body that is not affected.”
There is a certain irony in the fact that an inbuilt evolutionary mechanism supposed to protect us from danger is actually endangering our health. However, we can avoid serious consequences if we maintain an awareness of this evolutionary malfunction and remain mindful of our resulting stress levels.
When stressed, try to identify the cause (usually it doesn’t fit into the life-threatening category) and try to de-escalate with your favourite method of calming down. There are many effective methods for doing so. Among the most common are deep breathing, exercise, reading and drinking herbal tea (in which there is no caffeine). Meditation is also a powerful tool in this area, find out more on this in our mindfulness blog.
And let us know in the comments what ways you find most effective to reduce stress.