Flashback 200,000 years to one of our ancestors, living as a hunter-gatherer in a world where the threat of becoming prey was a legitimate concern. There he sits near the watering hole, enjoying some of the berries he’s recently picked. All of a sudden, he hears a rustle in the bush nearby, and looks over to see the unmistakable form of a wild animal about to pounce. In order to live to tell the tale, he rapidly switches from a state of ‘resting and digesting’ to one of ‘fighting or fleeing’. His amygdala alerts the rest of his brain that a threat is imminent. The bodily functions necessary to survive – increased heart rate, breathing and blood pressure, a rush of blood to muscles, and a huge adrenaline release – kick into gear. Bodily functions that are not immediately essential, such as digestion, repair, growth, learning, reasoning, memory and reproduction get put on the back burner. If he’s lucky, as quickly as it happened, the threat recedes, and our ancestor reverts back to the ‘rest and digest’ state, where he’ll remain until the next threat appears, days, weeks or even months from that moment.
Fast-forward to present day, in which our genetic makeup is not necessarily suited to our modern lifestyle. Instead of spending the majority of our life in ‘rest and digest’ state as our ancestors did, we are constantly experiencing low level stressors that shift us into ‘fight or flight’.
True, we may sometimes face real signals that our physical being is in danger, and in those instances the threat response is valid. But day to day ‘noise’, such as workload and deadlines, exams, bills, increasing demands on our time, 24 hour connectivity, high personal expectations and stretched relationships, create the same response in our body as a sabre-toothed tiger ready to pounce.
Our blood pressure, heart rate and breathing increase. Digestion, learning, memory, repair, growth, and reproductive function decrease. This can happen over and over again on a loop, day in day out, often hour by hour.
A prolonged increase in blood pressure and heart rate puts stress on the cardiovascular system. An extended decrease in digestive enzyme production can lead to heartburn, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome. Continuously high levels of cortisol increase blood sugar levels and insulin resistance. Shifting out of pre frontal cortex to ‘emergency response’ thinking results in brain fog and poor decision making. Altered blood flow to the reproductive organs and hormonal imbalance can result in low libido. Consistently high levels of adrenaline often lead to poor sleep. Prolonged stress can ultimately result in the ‘freeze’ response of depression. Self medicating with alcohol or drugs can become the norm.
All these reactions are your mind and body’s way of waving a red flag and saying ‘something needs to change’.
Counselling can be a good place to press pause and reflect.I help clients:
• Explore their current situation, working out how, when and why they got out of balance.
• Make small, realistic changes to their lifestyle, that are in keeping with their values, relationships and personal and professional constraints.
• Understand the difference between primeval survival and modern day ‘noise’.
• Incorporate practical relaxation strategies into every day.
• Replace physical endurance/neglect with essential self care.