Your heart rate speeds up … your blood pressure soars … your breathing gets shallow … your palms start sweating … your mind begins to spin … sounds familiar? These are all normal symptoms of the acute stress response commonly known as fight or flight.
The next two things I say shouldn’t surprise you:
1. Our culture is stressed out.
2. Stress is a bad thing.
It’s commonly known that stress is incredibly destructive in many ways—that’s why there are thousands of anti-stress books, programs, classes, and trainings on the market today.
But stressful situations aren’t the real problem with fight-or-flight mode. The problem is, fight or flight isn’t only activated during times of stress. It kicks in anytime we experience a perceived threat or stress. The key word being “perceived.” So anytime we catch even a whiff of fear or stress; not just when we’re experiencing it.
There are stressful things that happen all the time in life. It is our reaction to those external events that often cause the larger dose of stress. Why do we overreact, and in turn, create more stress for ourselves?
The Origins of Fight or Flight
The answer dates back thousands of years ago to caveman days; the fight or flight response is a primitive response that’s hard-wired into our brains. It was originally designed to make sure we’re alert and attentive during times of danger or threat to keep us protected. For example, when a lion came into view when we were gathering nuts and berries, the response would kick in to give us a surge of energy so we could get out of danger quickly.
This was super helpful when we encountered wild animals regularly, but the modern life does not present us with these life-threatening situations every day. The response, however, continues to kick in every day, despite the lack of danger in the wild that we now typically encounter. Today, the very same fight-or-flight response is activated anytime we experience a perceived threat or stress.
What Happens, Biologically, During Fight or Flight?
Our physiology reacts to this onset of stress by activating the sympathetic nervous system and releasing stress hormones—including adrenaline and cortisol—which again, can help us become alert and attentive during times of danger.
But it’s not so helpful in everyday life—and it happens all the time. This acute stress response can cause:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Rapid respiration
- Release of stress hormones
- Weakened immunity
- Platelet stickiness
- Less efficient minds and bodies
Fight-or-Flight in the Modern World
Question: How often do you think we experience flight-or-flight mode in our lives today?
Mull it over and take a guess, I’ll wait …
Make sure to take into account deadlines, decisions, traffic, relationships, conflict, financial woes, nerves, and any other stress-inducing events that happen to you each day—both big and small, real and perceived.
Answer: We are plunged into fight-or-flight mode on average between 8 and 15 times every day. Meaning, our stress hormones are being released into our bloodstream once every two or three hours every day, with varying degrees. Now THAT is stressful to think about. We often don’t realize how much it affects us.
Fighting Fight-or-Flight with Mindfulness and Meditation
In the West, we tend to think of meditation as a program for stress management, which makes sense because us westerners are far more stressed than other parts of the world, working hard and overcommitting ourselves. According to several studies, America is one of the most overworked and overstressed countries in the world, and stress levels are only on the rise. We need stress management tools and techniques now more than ever. Mindfulness practices, like meditation, are effective ways to cope with stress.
During meditation, our bodies shift into a state of restful awareness, where we can see and feel the opposite of what happens during that fight-or-flight response:
- Heart rate slows down
- Blood pressure normalizes
- Breathing slows and quiets
- Stress hormones calm and reduce
- Sweating normalizes
- Immunity strengthens because our body has been given the chance to rejuvenate
Meditation lowers cortisol levels and has the power to reverse the byproducts of stress.
Since our reactions to external events are what often cause us the larger doses of stress, proactively training our brains to be non-reactive is one of the best things we can do to manage stress levels. When we practice mindfulness, we’re in observation mode. Being mindful is the act of getting curious and observing what is happening instead of reacting to it. It bypasses the reaction time to external events and replaces it with a dose of non-judgmental curiosity.
Meditation is the most studied tool for mindfulness. But the point of meditation is not to create a window of peace and present-moment awareness in your day. The purpose is to be able to cultivate those feelings of peace and mindfulness and stillness, and bring them with you into your jobs, your relationships, and your communities … to bring the peace and wisdom and awareness that you cultivate during meditation into every part of your life.
Meditation is in no way a cure for stress, and it won’t remove stress from your life. But it will help you to react to stressful situations with more ease and grace.
Watch this 2-minute video for further explanation of the fight-or-flight response in an entertaining way.