In my last post , I explained how bodily processes that kept our Paleolithic ancestors safe and healthy over thousands of years of human evolution can actually impair our own health in the 21st-century. The way our bodies respond to stress is a striking illustration of this evolutionary mismatch.
In this post, we’ll explore how our bodies react to stress, how these reactions helped our ancestors in the past, and how these same ancient reactions hurt our 21st-century bodies most of the time. Next, I’ll outline some simple ways you can dial down your perceived stress level and reclaim your health.
How Our ‘Fight or Flight’ Stress Response Works
Imagine you’re one of your Paleolithic ancestors, you’re out in the woods one morning gathering nuts and berries, and you catch sight of a tiger lurking in the underbrush. The first part of your brain to respond is your lightening-quick amygdala—a very old part of the brain that some folks call “the reptile brain.” The amygdala sends a distress signal directly to the hypothalmus and central nervous system , triggering a cascade of bodily responses designed to help you fight or flee from that tiger and save your life.
Your adrenal glands pump out epinephrine, which causes your heart to pound rapidly, your blood pressure to rise, your muscles to tense, your metabolic system to flood your body with excess fat and sugar for quick energy. All of this happens on a split-second, subconscious level—without the involvement of our more rational, slower-thinking cerebral cortex. If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the adrenal glands release cortisol, a hormone that keeps your body on high alert.
Sometimes we encounter real physical dangers, and our biological responses to stress are essential to saving our lives. Short bursts of epinephrine can even be good for our health and well-being—especially when those bursts are part of physical activities that trigger long-term health benefits.
When epinephrine and cortisol remain consistently elevated, however, they cause chronic health problems such as blood vessel damage, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleeplessness, a desire to overeat, fat tissue buildup, diabetes, and more. Experts estimate that between 75 and 90 percent of visits to the doctor’s office in this country are due to ailments related to chronic stress.
The cruel irony: Most of the “tigers” that trigger stress responses in our modern bodies are really paper tigers. Our bodies may perceive them as physical threats, but they really aren’t.
Paper tigers that trigger stress responses include that yahoo who cut you off on the freeway and made you furious, that colleague at work who put you down in front of the boss and implicitly threatened your livlihood, or that panicky feeling you get when you look at your bank account and think it won’t cover all that you need. If events like these trigger the amygdala to launch visceral responses, we end up with chronically elevated epinephrine and cortisol levels and all the health problems they can cause.
Tame Your Tigers
Here’s the good news: In our modern, developed world, most of your days are chillaxed enough that you don’t need to turn on your fight or flight response. You need that fight or flight reaction only if someone has a gun at the ATM, or you need to chase a kid into a busy street to avoid speeding traffic, or for similar life-or-death situations. If you have a phone and a car and you ate today, you are part of the fortunate one percent of the world who can control your environment to the extent that you do. People in impoverished or war-torn countries are stressed. Many of our ancestors were stressed.
Most of us have no real reason to be stressed most of the time. Our stress—and the chronically elevated epinephrine and cortisol levels that go with it—comes mostly from the thoughts we have about things. Lowering our stress and improving our health starts with the mind-body connection.
A few ways to tame your paper tigers:
Turn worry into action.
The next time you feel stressed, sit down and write down what’s making you feel stressed. Next, decide what actions you can take to solve the problem. Taking rational, concrete action will help you mentally and will help you remedy the problems causing you stress.
Understand that you have enough.
When I ask people what the number-one stressor in America is, they always say “money.” No one ever gets that wrong! According to the the American Psychological Association’s recent survey, the majority of Americans are stressed by money (62 percent), followed closely by work (61 percent). I always remind people that money isn’t going to kill you unless you owe your dealer. Your reaction to money might. For folks who aren’t in poverty, financial stress is not as much about what we really need (shelter, food, health) as it is about what we think we need (the big house, the fancy car, or those limited-edition brand-name kicks). If you’re stressed about money, stop it. Instead, go back to the first tip in this list and take action. Downsize your lifestyle or get a second job so that you can pay off your debt or build a nest egg.
Practice smart social.
Turn off the news and set up your social media feed so that it’s mostly about cute babies, cute kittens, or whatever gives you joy. For the first time ever, the number one stressor for the highest percentage of Americans responding to the APA survey was “the future of our nation” (63 percent), followed closely by “current political climate” (57 percent). Things are wacky right now, for sure, but folks who believe this is the worst time in history haven’t read enough history. Pick up a good history book or listen to one of the many excellent history podcasts available for free to understand what the past really was. If you could choose to live in a world without penicillin or live now, for example, which would you choose? Yes, the present isn’t completely rosy, so once you’ve put things into perspective, return again to the first tip in the list and turn your worry into concrete action. No, don’t get into a political diatribe with your cousin on Facebook. Instead, try calling your elected representative, writing a letter to your local newsapaper’s editor, contributing to a cause you believe in, or joining a community of like-minded volunteers who are working to make the world better. When you take action, your stress levels decrease.
Let your body be a body.
Remember, when your epinephrine and cortisol are elevated, they are preparing your body for an ancient stress response—fight or flight. So give your body what it wants to do. Simulate running away from that tiger and move until you don’t feel like that anymore.Next time you’re feeling stressed, go out into your backyard or a nearby stretch of sidewalk and run wind sprints until you don’t feel that physical stress anymore. Any bout of high-intensity, cardiovascular interval training will burn off that excess cortisol—a hike or bike ride up a hill, swimming sprints, or a Zumba™ class. Just choose your favorite aerobic activity. I suggest sprinting only because it’s easy for most people and totally free of charge.
Focus on the present.
One reason we feel stress? At some level, we are not aware that we are safe. You can turn off your stress response system by becoming fully present, which helps your mind remind your body that you are safe. It’s called present moment reality thinking. If you mediatate daily, you’ll be reminded of how safe you actually are, and your mind-body system will practice and refine the art of recognizing potential stressors during the day and responding appropriately.Now, I know that meditiation is a scary word for some of you—so scary that it may cause you some stress! But there are ways to ease into meditation and make it part of your daily practice. Try downloading one of the many excellent free or low-cost guided meditation apps available. Start with short, five-to-ten-minute meditations and work up to 20 minutes twice a day. Similarly, prayer amidst the religious community of your choice is meditation.Pick a regular time to meditate and practice when you’d most like the benefits—before work, before you go home to your family, or before you go to sleep. It may feel like you’re “wasting time” at first, but you’re actually creating time because you retain knowledge better and think more creatively if you meditate.Don’t give up on meditation if it doesn’t seem to work the first few times. Babies learn to walk by getting up and falling down over and over again. Meditation for adults is similar. Just keep trying until it becomes second nature.Some of you may meditate already and not even know it. Do you ever do something that absorbs you so much that all other thoughts go away and you lose track of time? That’s meditation! It might be getting lost in a good novel, woodworking, or playing the guitar.And there’s moving meditation—physical activities that require so much mind-body focus that they have a meditative effect. Think of the last time you did something physical when time just melted away. When I was a teenager, my meditation was martial arts, and martial arts is still part of my meditative practice today. So is scuba diving. For others, it might be yoga, snow skiing, or dance.
In my next post, I’ll explain why good sleep is one more step you can take to alleviate stress and its negative affects on your health span. We’ll also talk about simple hacks to help you sleep much better than you’re sleeping now.