Our old-fashioned stress response

Fight or flight

When we lived as hunter-gatherers in small tribes life was hard and much shorter than the average time we can hope to live for now. Tribes worked together to collect food, protect their young and defend their territory. From time to time a member of the tribe might face a life-threatening situation—like being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger. In order to meet the challenges of such an event their fight-or-flight mechanism would kick in preparing their body to stand and fight, or to run for their lives. We have just the same mechanism today to help us deal with stress but the thing is that most of us are very unlikely to meet a sabre-toothed tiger and much more likely to get frustrated by slow-moving lines at the supermarket checkout, long traffic jams, irritating bosses and moody teenagers. Our difficulty is that our body does the exact same things to help us deal with all this as it did for our ancestors facing that sabre-toothed tiger.

How to escape that tiger

Say our ancestor made the wise decision to run from the tiger what does the body do to help him/her? They would need to move very fast and work hard to outrun the tiger, so the main purpose of the stress response in this instance is to get energy to the muscles in the quickest and most effective way possible, so fat cells and the liver release their stored glucose. The heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all increase in order to transport glucose and oxygen to the critical muscles. The flip side of this is that when the body is mobilizing to face immediate danger it puts a halt on long-term projects, which would divert energy from the priority of the moment—to survive. Digestion is slow process and there is no time to benefit from it, so during times of stress it is shut down. Growth, reproduction, tissue repair and the immune function are all put on hold. All these activities are extremely important for our ancestor’s long-term continuation but will not help them if they want to run away from that tiger. In addition the experience of pain is blunted enabling them to continue to run, or fight, even if they are injured. Various shifts occur in cognitive and sensory skills improving memory and sharpening the senses so that they can draw on memories of similar emergencies and be totally alert to what is going on around them. All their energy would be focused on the moment and on staying alive.

What that means when there is no tiger

As we already pointed out, in our life as a hunter gatherer we would not have expected to live for more than thirty-five, or forty years and our encounters with hostile tribes and sabre-toothed tigers, although traumatic, would have been fairly infrequent. How different from our lives now when our life expectancy is more than doubled and stressors can come in a myriad of forms over and over again, so that this response is being activated repeatedly and over longer periods of time. The risks are obvious. If we keep mobilizing energy and never store it we will tire easily and put ourselves at risk of some form of diabetes. A cardiovascular system that is frequently activated will result in hardening of the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. Continuously shutting down digestion leads to ulcers, colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. An interrupted reproductive cycle will take longer and longer to regulate itself resulting in amenorrhea and infertility. A suppressed immune system means we are more likely to contract infectious diseases and be less effective at combating them than we were.

Food for thought?

So what worked for us many thousands of years ago does not match a modern lifestyle and is possibly a cause of problems for us. Perhaps over the next several thousand years our nervous system will get the message but in the meantime we need a different look at how we react to the wide range of stressors we encounter.

  • A good place to start is by noticing them and noticing the effect they have on us. That can help us choose how we want to react rather than just falling into our habits of reaction.
  • Another strategy is to try and make a session of meditation part of our daily schedule. In that way we are training our minds to clam down and become stable, so that we are less inclined to over-react to the irritations of life.
  • Then we can also try and look at any stressful events we encounter from a bigger perspective than just how if affects us personally. We could try and see how the event is part of an inter-connected picture, rather than a random happening. We could try and think of the other people involved and see the situation from their point of view.

Our fight-or-flight mechanism may be ancient and deeply entrenched but our minds are very powerful and capable of determining how we react. We just need to be working with them in the most adventitious way.

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