Our bodies are designed to notice threats in the environment and act accordingly. Historically, this was a good thing. If we saw a saber-tooth tiger we knew we had to fight, flee, or freeze (also known as the fight or flight response) to survive. However, the saber-tooth tiger is extinct but our response remains.
What does this mean for us today? Our bodies now act on perceived threats (work stressors, long commutes, crying children, angry spouses) the same way we reacted to saber-tooth tigers. This is problematic for many reasons. Primarily, when our bodies go into fight or flight mode our heart rate increases, our breathing gets shallow, our stomachs tighten, and we prepare to protect our lives. We are essentially in attack mode against the perceived threat. Again, this response is/was beneficial in the face of an actual life threatening situation but not helpful in an argument with our spouse.
This is particularly problematic over long periods of time. When our bodies perceive stress on a continuous basis without relief we develop many ailments; such as: migraines, high blood pressure, digestive issues, depressed mood, increased cortisol levels, increased risk of infection and many others.
How do we counter this response? This is challenging but not impossible. Fight or flight is an automatic response so we can’t necessarily stop it before it starts but we can reverse it, so to speak, by reminding ourselves that this is a scary situation but not lethal. The first step is to notice when you feel a knot in your stomach, your muscles tighten, your fists clench, or your breath get shallow. Then slow down.
How to slow down:
1) Pause, try not to do or say anything unless it is absolutely necessary
2) Breathe, take six deep breaths (or more) filling and emptying your lungs very slowly
3) Notice, look around you and notice the things happening in your environment
4) Comfort, rest your muscles, put a hand on your stomach or chest
5) Remind, tell yourself that you’re safe and you’re going to be OK
6) Repeat, do these steps until you feel your stress decrease
7) Resume, return to your life
This takes practice but gets easier over time. It helps to practice these techniques when you’re not stressed as you will better develop the habit of slowing down and noticing what’s happening in your life.
Disclaimer: If you are in a life-threatening situation, listen to your body and get out of there.