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Stress & Our Flight or Fight Response

All of us experience stress at some point in our lives. Many of us are experiencing stress and its effects every day of our lives. Probably for the majority of us, it has got to the stage that being stressed has become the norm. We don’t know what to do with ourselves if we have a few spare hours. We feel guilty and lazy if we take a day off. Every single moment has to be filled with chores & errands in order for us to feel productive.

This stress has an enormous effect on our mental and physical health. Prolonged periods of stress are responsible for the majority of illnesses that we experience today.

When we are experiencing what we perceive individually as a stressful situation, it triggers our fight-or-flight response. In prehistoric times this was our mechanism for protecting ourselves from danger. It is an automatic response which switches on when we feel threatened. It is there to enable us to act quickly. This response causes many physical changes in our bodies. Our heart rate increases, our breath becomes fast and shallow, our digestive system shuts down, our blood pressure and pulse rate increases. This causes some blood vessels to dilate to allow for the increased flow, while others constrict to reduce the flow. The body will reduce blood flow, nutrients and energy to and from the organs that it does not need during a threat i.e. the stomach, intestines, spleen, liver etc. It will then increase blood flow, nutrients and energy to the heart, lungs and muscles that propel our limbs in order for us to make a quick escape. This adrenaline fuelled, hyper-sensitive and reactive body is exactly what we need when running away from a predator or attacker but is not ideal at all if you are trying to negotiate with you teenage children or convince your boss that you have everything under control and you will make that deadline.

This automatic response to danger, was only ever meant to be a short term state of being, an emergency response to protect ourselves. Unfortunately our bodies do not know the difference between a physical threat and a mental threat. We are programmed to react the same way. The pressure, worry and expectations that we now subject ourselves to are perceived as a threat to our system. Because of this many of us spend far too long in this heighten state of being. Over time causing physical stress to the body resulting in illness. The organs and digestive system do not get enough blood and nutrients to perform efficiently while the heart, lungs and muscles get overwhelmed and over worked. This increase in energy to the heart can cause the heart to expand resulting in heart disease.

One of the most dangerous symptoms of stress is high blood pressure or hypertension. Known as the silent killer, high blood pressure can be a direct result of feeling stress and the switching on of our fight-or-flight response. Often undetected, high blood pressure can result in heart attacks, brain damage, stroke and even sudden death.

In order to try to switch off our flight or fight response, to relax and forgot about the pressure we are under many people turn to alcohol, substance abuse or other addictions which create even more damage to the body and mind. Ultimately leading to more stress, tension, depression, anxiety and illness.

Some people may visit the doctor to get help with anxiety, depression and panic attacks caused by stress. Many will be prescribed anti-depressants. However taking drugs to help deal with stress can only ever be a temporary solution. Drugs will not reduce the stress a person is under nor will they change way that person copes with stressful situations, they will only numb their reactions to stress.

It is essential then, that people are taught how to recognise when they are experiencing symptoms of stress, how to minimise their exposure to stressful situations and how to improve their coping mechanisms when exposed. Taking anti-depressant medicate long term will only damage the body further with many unwanted side effects.

Learning how to switch off our fight or flight response is an essential part of learning how to cope with stress. We need to be able to recognise what a stressful situation is for us, learn how we react to stress and then, how to reduce or avoid our stress triggers.

Remaining in stress response for prolonged periods can also be a major factor in the following diseases; anorexia, asthma, other allergies and skin diseases, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, constipation, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, decreased immunity leading to increased cold and flu symptoms, diabetes, loss of libido and sexual function, bladder infections and diseases, fibromyalgia, migraines and headaches, joint pain, multiple sclerosis, muscles aches, back and neck pain, difficulty sleeping.

Meditation can help us manage our stress levels. With meditation we learn to calm the mind, slow the breath and switch ourselves back into our natural relaxed state. When we meditate our heart rate decreases, our breath slows, our blood pressure decreases, our bodies relax, the nutrients and energy can go back to our organs and digestive system. We switch on the relaxation response and our bodies can begin to heal.

The more time we can remain in this relaxed state during our lives the healthier we’ll be and we will ultimately live for longer. Our organs will be healthier, our minds will be clearer, and more focused. The systems of our bodies will run more efficiently. We would no longer feel the need to turn to drugs, food, alcohol or other addictions to numb the result of our response to stress.

If we can create a habit of meditating daily, our bodies and minds will start to learn how to switch off our fight-or-flight response and switch back into the relaxation response. We will remember those feeling of calmness and peace. We will have more control over our responses. And if, and when we do flip the switch back to fight-or-flight, we will remain in that state for a shorter period of time. We begin to feel more content and live a more fulfilling life.

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