Stress is not the enemy. The stress response, also known as the fight or fight response is programmed deep within our physiology to keep us alive. In our earliest existence as a species, we were running around in the jungle in a sexy little loincloth just struggling to survive. Many of our predators were faster runners, better tree climbers, and had sharper claws and teeth than we did. The fight or flight response was and still is our armor; it protects us when we are most vulnerable.
As this battle mode kicks in within seconds of a perceived threat, our brain swings into high gear, barking out orders in a frantic pace to lift us beyond our physical and psychological limitations. Not one cohesive thought pattern is necessary; it just happens.
During the stress response:
- Your clarity and focus increase; your vision improves
- Your breathing becomes faster and shallow, so you do not hyperventilate
- You begin to sweat, so you do not overheat
- Your heart beats faster and your blood pressure rises
- Long-term building projects are shut down; digestion, growth, reproduction, immunity, for example, are temporarily placed on hold
- Your blood thickens, begins to clot, in anticipation of an injury
- If your bladder is full, it may void. If anything is full, it may void
- Adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol and glucose are released in large surges
- All energy is diverted to your arms and legs – as much as 100x the power is flowing to your limbs
- You become a super hero; red cape and all
This is good stuff; it is magic. It heightens our ability to fight harder, think faster, and run like hell, if necessary, in order to survive. It gives us courage, strength, and clarity. It is an empowerment tool in the truest sense. This powerful survival tool is meant to last for a few minutes until the threat is over and we either survive or succumb. Unfortunately, like so many other things, we have turned it into the enemy out of fear and lack of understanding. It is not the enemy; it is our ally. We just need to learn how to apply in a 21st century context.
One of the reasons for the shift from the “stress is the enemy model” to the “make stress your friend model” was born out of study that tracked approximately 30,000 adults over a period of eight years. The researchers asked them how much stress they had in their lives and if they perceived that stress as having a harmful impact. They then tracked these people through public health records and what they found was completely unexpected. The people that reported high levels of stress and viewed stress as harmful to their health had a 43% higher rate of premature death; not a surprise. Here is where it got interesting: the people that said they had high levels of stress in their lives but didn’t see it as a problem, had the lowest rates of premature death – it was even lower than the group that reported having no stress all.
Recent studies on stress theorize that it is not the actual stress-filled situations in our lives that create the problem. Instead, it is our perception of stress that influences how this fight or flight response will manifest in our physiology and in our lives. Understanding the relevance of “how you walk through the fire” is what turns stress from your worst enemy into your ally.
Years ago, there was a story about a woman that lifted a car off her daughter to pull her out, after the three-year-old became trapped underneath their car in the driveway. That is the power of fight or flight as it is meant to serve us. It kicks in when we feel our life, or the life of a loved one, is in danger. It is there to help us face a challenge quickly and efficiently. This physiological dance begins as soon as a threat is registered by the brain, and it continues until the threat no longer exists. During the stress response, your brain places your body into battle model, a suit of armor so to speak. This is the glory of fight or flight being utilized to serve us and save us when we need to shift into a high-power mode.
You may often experience this response right before a big speaking engagement, a test, an interview, or an athletic competition; this is normal. Embrace it knowing that once you begin the process, you will feel it subside. It will give you the courage you need to step out of your comfort zone and deliver.
However, if you are stuck in traffic on your way to an important meeting, this response will kick in as well. It is fight or flight in an emotional context. You will more than likely notice your shoulders pulled up to your ears, hands gripping the steering wheel, and your jaw clenched, all part fight/flight being activated. This reaction will not lift you off the road and deliver you to your destination on time. This is a classic example of the form of stress that we should strive to understand and control. The bills piling up, a loved one that is ill, deadlines, demands at home and in the workplace; all stress-filled situations that cortisol, and thicker platelets will not help to resolve. Unfortunately, it will not change the situation, it would be nice if it did but it does not. What it will do is change the way we are reacting to a negative experience in our lives that we could accept and walk through in a different way.
When we learn to understand and tame our stress response, we free ourselves from the 21st century cycle of abuse that we have accepted as the new norm.
The question is; how can we create the shift necessary to befriend this incredible ally? We do this by ceasing to view stress as the enemy; an enemy that we need to run from in order to survive. Acknowledging that we are allowing stress to take control of the steering wheel when it should be sitting in the back seat, allows us to take the first step toward taming this response. Once we identify the patterns of stress in our lives, we can begin to develop a more mindful approach that will enable us to understand, utilize and properly walk through negative experiences as they unfold.
Understanding the relevance of “how you walk through the fire” is what turns stress from your worst enemy, into your ally. The whole process is transformed when we identify our triggers; when we take control of the process and acknowledge that we have choices. Only then can we begin to reprogram our brain to use this tool in the way it was designed: to make us the most powerful, fearless version of ourselves.
Stress is not defined by the situations in our life.
It is how we approach the situations in our life.
And that approach is something that we can change.
What matters most is how well we walk through the fire.
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