I was driving home from work the other day, when the car in front of me hit the brakes hard for no apparent reason. It turned out a cat had run onto the road. I noticed a surge of warmth running through my gut and up into my chest as I hit the brakes – like butterflies in my stomach. Fortunately we all braked just in time and the cat escaped with no more than a near-death experience. Relief! But my heart still pounded for several minutes after, and while on the surface it seemed like the accident had been avoided, internally my body was still dealing with the consequences of the wandering kitty.
The “butterflies in the stomach” feeling I experienced was caused by a surge of adrenalin from my adrenal glands commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. Physiologically our heart beats faster, we breathe quicker, our digestion slows markedly and we become exceptionally alert. The body instantly prepares its self for an emergency. In more primitive times, when in danger, this response was necessary to ensure our survival.
Fight or flight is not the time to compute an algebra problem, discuss politics or comment on the weather. The body is preparing itself to “fight” or “fly”. When a lion is chasing you, or you are hunting a lion, you need to be quicker and stronger than ever – the “fight or flight” response prepares you for those situations.
Nowadays, we normally (hopefully!) find ourselves safe from lions and other mortal growling dangers, but instead we are surrounded by a world full of stimulants, pollutants and chemicals. Often times our food products, cosmetics, medications and busy lifestyles are triggers which can wreak havoc on our bodies by interfering with our natural “fight or flight” response.
Whilst “fight or flight” can save our life in the event of a car crash, in the absence of a real immediate threat, frequent adrenalin boosts become counter-productive to our long-term health. Chronic fatigue, adrenal suppression, inflammation, pain and tiredness result. We can easily end up in a state of constant low grade ‘fight or flight”, otherwise known as “sympathetic dominance”.
Our actions, reactions and interactions directly effect our autonomic nervous system. Whilst our sympathetic nervous system can save us in a crisis, the “fight flight” response is only meant to be short lived. If we become stuck in a state of perpetual “sympathetic dominance”, our health suffers as our bodies struggle to rest, digest and detox. Simply put, we cannot feel good, sleep well, or live a happy life.
The “mini-stressors” which activate our “flight or fight” response repeatedly abound in our modern lifestyles. Anything that raises your blood pressure regularly is likely a culprit. We may wake up tired after a poor night’s sleep, startled and panicked by our loud bedside alarm. Then there’s a mad rush to eat (or skip eating) an unhealthy breakfast before jumping into the car to rushing the kids to school. We react angrily when another car cuts in front of us in traffic and we might carry that burden with us all day, perpetuating the original event and the ensuing emotions when we remark to our work colleagues how “you’ll never guess what some crazy driver did to me today – he almost killed me!” You get the picture – all day long we can (if we choose to) allow stressors to activate our “fight or flight” response.
Many of life’s little challenges may seem inevitable originally. But a great motivator for change is the conscious awareness of how detrimental these “mini-stressors” can be.
The lifestyle decisions you make are entirely just that – up to you. There are many small steps you can begin to make as you begin to take responsibility for your health journey. Be it taking on a less stressful position at work, or adopting some coping strategies, removing mercury dental fillings, choosing to only eat whole foods or becoming an active participant in your internal dialogue.
There are some things we can control, and others that we cannot. It’s the little choices that we make each and every day, that add up to vitality and health, or illness and fatigue. Sometimes all it takes is a change in perspective, or a seed of inspiration.
At Heal, we facilitate a monthly inspirational event called “Heal Speak”. This is a chance to connect to your community and get inspired by those around you. Tickets are only $10 and all proceeds go to wellness projects. Get involved, have fun and remember that although living a healthy lifestyle is the road less travelled, one positive step at a time is all it takes.
Written by Dr Daniel Hanson
Edited by Dr Murray Orr