by Aviva Romm, MD
You’re probably familiar with the term fight-or-flight. It’s the system of survival responses that automatically kicks in when we’re exposed to a threat. Your heart races, your breathing gets shallow, and you become hyperaware of everything that’s going on around you, your brain scanning for danger, our body waiting to run or pounce. On an evolutionary scale, this is meant to be a short-lived reaction that occurs, say, when you’re running away from a predatory.
What you might not realize is that it’s the same response your brain and body kick into when you’re under chronic stress and overload. In fact a lot of us spend a lot of time in chronic overload, going from one mini-crisis to the next, one never ending to do list item to another, with too little time for rest and repair. We keep up, we push though with coffee, sugar, or other habits, and we try to adapt to the demands of our lives.
There’s some bad news here: over time, we pay the price with our health. Being in chronic survival mode can lead to serious chronic symptoms such as fatigue, poor sleep, stubborn weigh (especially muffin tops and belly fat), poor focus, memory, or work accomplished (“brain fog”), and hormonal imbalances, as well chronic medical problems including metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and autoimmune conditions (for example, Hashimoto’s).
The good news is that the fight or flight mode is not the only one we can use to respond to stress. With a little practice, you can use these techniques to consciously shift your body’s stress response instead into a state that’s calm, secure, and replenished.
1. REST AND DIGEST
We aren’t meant to spend most of our time in overdrive. Part of life necessarily involves replenishing ourselves by getting into a parasympathetic response — what you experience when you nap, get a massage, or lie in shavasana at the end of yoga. This restorative mode helps us recover from the wear and tear of daily life and times of stress.
The problem is that most of us don’t take time to hit the pause button, because we think we can’t — or shouldn’t. But intentionally taking time to recuperate after an unexpected stressful event will lessen its effects. Better yet, we should regularly build this time into our schedules.
Here are a few other ways to shift into “rest and digest” that you can try anytime:
- Breathe slowly and deeply for three minutes before you jump out of bed in the morning, and before sleep at night.
- Spend 30 minutes a day in nature.
- Take a relaxing hot bath in the evening.
- Attend a yoga class.
2. TEND AND BEFRIEND
There’s a physiological reason it feels so good to call a friend when you’re feeling anxious or down. UCLA researcher Shelley Taylor, PhD, has identified this as the “tend and befriend” stress response.
Along with adrenaline and cortisol, the body produces a small amount of oxytocin in response to a threat. Sometimes called “the cuddle hormone,” oxytocin triggers us to bond with others, which helps us feel safe and settle down.
Shifting into this mode isn’t hard:
- Do something social — anything that allows you to bond with others. You don’t need to discuss problems to get the benefit of social bonding.
- Connect with a good friend on the phone or take a walk and talk it out. Studies show that verbalizing our concerns automatically turns off the sympathetic nervous system.
3. EXCITE AND DELIGHT
You don’t have to shut down when you feel pressure. It’s possible to open up and use the energy of stress to become more interested in what’s going on. This is called the “excite and delight” response. Because it also involves cortisol and adrenaline, you feel the same level of alertness and awareness as you do in fight or flight. But rather than narrowing your focus, you choose to open up, to be curious.
Marilee Adams, PhD, calls this a “learner mindset.” If you adopt a learner mindset, a challenging situation can become an opportunity to learn or experience something new. If you’re ill, for example, you can view your symptoms as a chance to listen to your body instead of as signs of your demise. Or if someone is being aggressive toward you, you could ask yourself what’s going on with that person, rather than reacting defensively. This might lead to compassion instead of more anger. Curiosity expands your options for how to solve problems — and often resolves them more quickly and easily.
Asking yourself these questions can help you shift into excite-and-delight mode:
- What’s really happening here?
- What else might be going on that I’m not seeing?
- What’s interesting about this situation?
Too often we assume that how we’re “wired” to respond to stress is just “who we are.” But you can actually rewire your brain and with it not only your stress response, but your happiness, success, health, and longevity. You can respond differently to stress, and in this holiday season, and facing the New Year, now’s a great time to start.
About Dr. Aviva Romm
Referred to as “the face of natural medicine in the 21st century” by Prevention Magazine and one of the 100 Women to Watch in Wellness by Mind Body Green, and founding board member of Yale Integrative Medicine, Aviva Romm is a Yale-trained, board-certified MD, midwife, and herbalist with a specialty in women’s health. Her new book, The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution provides a groundbreaking blueprint for women to take back their health by understanding the Root Causes of imbalance.