Did you know that the fight-flight-freeze response kicks in even when we’re remembering an experience from the past? We can be sitting comfortably and safely in our living room chair, yet our body can be producing epinephrin and cortisol just by remembering (reliving) an experience from the past.
Twenty-four hours a day our brain and body are processing information. Even when we dream, our body reacts to our mind’s creations of peaceful and stressful situations.
When we’re awake, we receive input from our senses, including sight, sound, smell, taste, skin sensations, and even intuition (our “gut” feelings). For survival reasons, we are wired to be more aware of dangers than of harmless stimuli. For example, if you’re out walking and you hear a sound behind you, chances are you’re not noticing the color of the roses next to you.
Also, we tend to remember bad experiences more often, and in more detail, than we remember good ones.
What’s happening in our bodies when we sense danger? A very quick sequence of “if-then” decisions. Our responses depend on the degree of the perceived threat. The amygdala starts the process by evaluating the threat and determining the best response. Is it time to run or hide or freeze?
If not, then relax and carry on.
If yes, then the amygdala sends a danger signal to the hypothalamus, a small region at the base of the brain, which activates the sympathetic nervous system. The adrenal glands then release chemicals, including epinephrine, so that our heart rate and breathing increase. Next comes another decision… is the threat still real?
If not, then relax and carry on.
If yes, then the hypothalamus alerts the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, and the well-known stress hormone cortisol is released from the adrenal cortex. We remain on high alert for threats to our safety, ready to do what we need to do to stay safe. This state is definitely not healthy to maintain for long periods of time, but unfortunately many people live in a chronic state of stress.
The point of all this is to let you know that you can break the chain of stress reactions when you’re not really in danger, when it’s just a reaction based on a memory. How?
- Take one or more slow, calming breaths, remembering that you are safe and no longer in danger. Say out loud or to yourself: “I am safe now.”
- Extend your breathing practice a little longer and let it become a mindful breathing meditation where you let yourself focus on the sensations of breathing as you calm your mind for a few minutes.
- Look around you and notice things that make you feel good.
- Practice Emotional Freedom Techniques, or EFT tapping, to alert the amygdala at the start of the process that right here and right now, you’re safe, and that it’s okay to relax.
Integrating one or more of these methods, depending on which ones work best for you, can be very helpful.
To get started, read the first book in my best-selling The Art of Managing Stress series called Take One Breath. The eBook is free! You’ll learn five easy ways to use breathing to feel calmer fast.
The second book in the series is called In This Moment, where you learn to start or deepen a mindfulness meditation practice. Even if meditation is not your thing, you’ll find one or more suggestions in this book helpful for cultivating and maintaining a calmer life.
The third book is called Emotional Freedom Techniques. EFT is everywhere now that the scientific research shows exactly how well it works. From Olympic athletes to the Royals to teachers and students in the classroom, EFT is a simple yet very powerful tool that I highly recommend.
Whatever you do, remember that you have the power to stop the negative downward spiral of stress.
Keep Calm and Tap On!