We are designed to cope remarkably well with short term stress. When we perceive danger, our bodies leap into fight or flight mode, which describes succinctly what it is that we are preparing to do.
When we heard the sabre toothed tiger growl in the bushes behind us, we knew we had to sprint fifty metres to the cave and safety, or we had to turn and fight. Given the options, your body’s responses are perfectly suited. Your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure increase to deliver more blood and oxygen.
Your circulation shifts flow towards lungs and muscles, and away from your digestive system (digesting your last meal is less important than not becoming someone’s next meal.) Your blood thickens so that if you do get clawed or bitten, it will clot quickly to reduce blood loss.
Your adrenal glands release hormones that increase the amount of sugar in the blood, so there is plenty of fuel for your muscles. These hormones also turn down your immune system, but we’re not worried about catching a cold or developing cancer for the next few minutes, our focus of attention is on teeth, claws and their avoidance.
The whole thing is a perfectly orchestrated response to an acute stress situation; a major problem for us now is that we spend most of our time coping with chronic or long term stress.
The very responses that save our lives in an emergency, now threaten us. The increased blood pressure makes stokes and heart attacks more likely, as does the stickier blood.
The shift in circulation upsets our digestion, impairing the quality of our nutrition and contributing to various digestive diseases. Interfering with the workings of our immune system make us more prone to infections, cancer, allergies and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
So how do we persuade our bodies that traffic jams, work pressures or a family member behaving unreasonably do not justify a fight or flight response?
It’s certainly not much use telling yourself to calm down; you won’t believe you! You have to explain things to your body in a language it understands. Breathing is one such way; while it is part of the automatic response to stress it is also something over which we can have conscious control.
Start by inhaling just slightly deeper than usual, and then let the air out smoothly and steadily.
On the next breath, allow the exhalation to get a little longer, but keep it relaxed and easy. Continue this process allowing your exhalations to get as long as they want. The important thing is that your out breath is longer than your in breath, but without any hint of strain.
By letting your body know that you are in no great rush for the next breath, you will convince it that it must have been mistaken about that sabre toothed tiger. No it wasn’t a swishing tail you saw at the end of the supermarket checkout queue, and your mother in law doesn’t really have long fangs . . . does she?