FIGHT, FLIGHT OR FREEZE
June 27, 2018
A conversation with Ryan Kenny & Rena Satre Meloy on finding balance in life and the workplace through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.
I have a strong flight response. My best friend and former roommate can attest to this – she’ll tell you all about the time she found me on the roof of our home (it was a low roof, accessed through a bathroom window) on the phone with the police, reporting that someone had broken into the house (it was her – yes, I called the police on my roommate for coming home). This, ladies and gentlemen, is an admittedly dramatic flight response in need of some serious Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. June’s Mindful Morning conversation with Ryan and Rena addressed just that – our understanding of perceived stress and the physiological response that it triggers, how stress has evolved over time and how we can manage stress through mindfulness.
TO STRESS IS TO BE HUMAN
Ryan said it more than once, “This is an incredible time to be alive,” and it’s true -- technology is changing right before our eyes and in our hands and our environments are changing because of it. However, as technological advancements have brought about changes in the workplace and in our daily lives, we’re noticing a rise in stress levels. All the sudden, mindfulness has become the Pok Pok wings of must-try items on the wellness menu.
It’s no surprise – as Rena and Ryan pointed out, this is a uniquely stressful period of time, particularly as lines between the workplace and personal life blur. As many of the June Mindful Morning attendees shared, there are many core factors contributing to this modern-day stress such as pressure to perform, feeling the need to be “always on”, managing the tiny computers in our back pockets that are criminally good at distracting us and battling email inboxes that are off the chain. Seriously, Anthropologie. I am up to my distressed denim knees in 20% off emails.
However, as Ryan and Rena reminded us, while these particular stressors have arrived in tandem with technology, stress as a phenomenon is not unique to this time period. Rather, it is a part of the human condition.
AN EVOLVING UNDERSTANDING OF STRESS
Our understanding of stress has evolved since the phenomenon became an area of popular study in the 1930’s with an endocrinologist named Hans Selye. While studying animal behavior, Selye noticed that when an individual or organism was exposed to an acute or toxic stressor, the animal would experience a nonspecific response to a demand for change. Selye’s research challenged the common assumption at the time that illnesses were directly linked to a specific type of disease. In laymen’s terms, Selye’s researched suggested that stress can in fact make us sick.
Taking our understanding of stress a step further, Richard Lazarus came along in the 1960’s and argued that stress is a relational response, implying that the way we see or perceive the stressor has an impact on how it effects our health. Lazarus argued that an experience can externally be objective, though internally can be perceived radically differently amongst individuals which impacts what happens in the mind and the body. It changes how stress plays out physiologically.
It starts with the appraisal: I’m home alone, someone’s at the front door, they’re walking through the kitchen, my roommate typically doesn’t get off work this early in the evening.
Lazarus argues that when we see something that is potentially threatening to our well-being, it is our assessment that “I don’t have what it takes to handle this situation” that acts as the stressor. I’ve never thrown a punch in my life.
In a split second, your mind determines whether the stressor is something you can handle: That’s going to be a hard no.
That assessment triggers your flight or fight response: Thank you Maggie, for realizing what was going on before I went full Rapunzel from the roof into the backyard.
FROM FIGHT OR FLIGHT TO REST AND DIGEST
Our autonomic nervous system has two modes: parasympathetic and sympathetic.
Our parasympathetic nervous system is our rest and digest mode:
- Our breathing is easy
- Heartrate is low
- Muscles are relaxed
- Blood is flowing to our vital organs to support digestion and nourishment
Our sympathetic nervous system if our fight or flight mode:
- Breathing becomes shallow
- Heartrate increases
- Muscles tense up
- Blood flows into our extremities
- Body releases cortisol, which is the stress hormone, and adrenaline
Our bodies naturally shift between these two states depending on our perceived threats. Evolutionarily, if you look at our ancestors, they spent most of their time in this rest or digest state with the exception of the occasional need to escape a predator.
THE NEW BASELINE
What’s happening now, is that our new baseline is often, to some degree, operating in our fight or flight mode from our need to always “be on”. We are constantly experiencing perceived threats, however they’re not the sabre tooth tigers our ancestors squared off with – they’re our email inboxes, deadlines and freeway closures. They’re perpetually triggering a stress response in our bodies.
Mindfulness is so powerful because it can help us shift back to our rest and digest mode and allows us to choose a response that better supports us instead of the maladaptive behaviors and habits that we fall into as part of that autopilot mode.
TOOLS FOR CALMING THE F*#k DOWN
- Mindful pauses: On the hour, every hour. Get into the habit of pausing and reconnecting with our mind and the body. And furthermore the mindful pause can be integrated into a wide variety of applications – when we’re commuting, when we’re email, when we’re in a meeting.
- Body scan: Taking notice of patterns of thought and what our bodies are telling us. With the awareness, it presents an opportunity to make adjustments.
- Breath work: The breath is directly tied to our emotional space. When that fight or flight response kicks in we feel really stressed out, the breath becomes labored, short and shallow. So if we are able to shift our attention from the stressor, we can take a moment to pause and bring our attention to the breath to slowly allow it to slow down, become deeper and smoother and can help us shift out of that stress state. Powerful emergency tool when we’re feeling on edge. It just takes pausing.