Let’s get this clear from the beginning: We DO NEED stress in our life. A common question asked by psychologists is ‘how stressed to you feel from 1 to 10’ with 10 being the most stressed you have ever felt. Next question might be ‘Where would you like to be on this scale’?. You’d be surprised how many people with reply ‘0’ (ZERO). Well, one thing is for sure we would not be alive anymore if stress was actually zero. This of course is not a very desirable state.
The stress response of our physical body, also called Fight Flight Freeze (FFF), is a hugely adaptive reaction to dangers from our environment and has given the human race an advantage over other species.
Imagine this: You are a caveman or cavewoman and a lion paces in the vicinity of your cave gets ready to catch his next meal. Well, that would be a real threat to your sheer physical being, to your actual survival. If anything, such a situation would require you to react to very quickly. Involving the brain for a conscious and well reflected decision and plan would be way too slow. The sympathetic (S for stress) nervous system, however, has an in-built process that enormously fast gets the body ready to either run (flight), attack (fight) or play dead (freeze) to ensure physical survival. Lots of chemical changes happen in the body at this moment. Once the danger situation is over, all systems go back to normal, balance is re-established and the parasympathetic nervous system (P for peace) takes over. In reality, these two parts of the nervous system find the necessary balance once the danger is gone. The important point here is: This is all related to physical survival of the body by very speedily recognising dangers in the physical environment.
So how does this effect modern iphone-men, women and children? Well, first of all, still in the same way. It’s a highly protective response: triple FFF reaction makes you hit the brakes of your car quickly if necessary, it gets your hand off the hot stove and makes you run when a big dog is chasing you. Still the same physical (chemical) reaction as during cavemen times. So far so good!
When we become chronically stressed, it usually means that FFF is out of control. We have begun to e.g. perceive psychological events as dangerous. Our mind might constantly tell us we are ‘not good enough’, ‘the other person might think we are stupid’ or ‘I am not a good mother’, ‘I will get fired, won’t be able to provide for my family’ etc. Once you start listening to your mind in a more mindful way, some readers might notice how talkative this mind can be. And the ‘off button’ is very hard to find. So we get highly anxious with regards to exams, we believe we won’t be professionally successful or we can’t survive without our partner or we need to always be in control, check on our children, check eMail, do shopping, do everything at once. All this can somehow be perceived as difficult and stressful and the sympathetic (again S for stress) nervous system becomes constantly high aroused as if we were about to fight, fight or freeze. However, most modern ‘dangerous’ situations we can’t run away from or can’t physically fight so the chemicals won’t get processed properly. Consequently, we feel continuously stressed, basically as if that lion is constantly pacing in front of our modern day ‘cave. We forget how to relax and can’t distinguish anymore if all this is actually useful or necessary.
The good news is: as we have somehow trained ourselves to be constantly stressed and anxious we can also re-train ourselves to apply greater psychological flexibility and breath more calmly. There is many studies that show that the brain has great plasticity and if we train our ability to respond more mindfully to modern day dilemmas and life events, related brain areas will grow!
To learn more about psychological flexibility and useful tools to respond to life instead of using a short-circuit mal-adaptive reaction call or meet with Claudia. Claudia is a registered psychologist who primarily helps people with Acceptance and Commitment training to increase psychological flexibility and mindfulness.
She offers an initial free chat for new clients (20-30 minutes). Please call Claudia on 0408 428 110 and visit www.claudiagross.com.au for more information.