It’s encoded in our DNA. That old fight-or-flight response served such a purpose once, literal life and death depending upon it. From the dawn of human consciousness we had to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. As Kenny Rogers said, “Know when to walk away, know when to run.”
Otherwise we’d get eaten by those Wooly Mammoths.
The thing about that flight-or-fight response too—it comes with surging hormones. Because we needed three specific ones in response, for different reasons.
Although few of us face literal lions these days, near-death experiences appear often (and not the white-light kind). You’re on the highway going 75 mph and a big truck crosses into your lane. You swerve away, heart pounding, muscles tense, breathing rapidly, sweating. That’s adrenaline kicking in. Along with all of the physical sensations, it brings a surge of energy. You literally could have raced away from that snarling Mammoth! But you saved yourself from its modern-day counterpart—the eighteen wheeler.
Also when stressed, the adrenal glands produce norepinephrine. This makes you more awake, more aware, more focused. You’re generally more responsive in every way. It also shifts blood into the essential areas for flight, like the muscles. Man, did we ever once need that! And if you get lost in a not-great part of town, you still may.
The third hormone released, Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, takes a bit more time to feel the effects (minutes, rather than seconds in the above two). When you kick into survival mode, an optimal amount of cortisol can be life-saving. It maintains fluid balance and blood pressure, among other things.
But the thing is, when you stay in or stew on (which is what gets most of us these days) a problem, the body continually releases cortisol. Too much can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure and sugar, decrease sex drive, and contribute to a host of other physical issues.
Cortisol, especially, is a killer as it continues to be produced. Inflammation is the big keyword in medicine these days, and we know it causes everything from heart attacks to cancer to acne.
So, finding how to deal with the initial stressor is simply paramount to our health.
In a perfect world, once the “problem” is dealt with, these hormone levels go back to normal in about thirty minutes, their jobs done. But in reality, since we’re rarely dueling it out or fleeing these days, they continue on. Dealing with difficult people is the issue that most pushes our buttons. Whether from the idiot driver in the other lane to co-workers or bosses or an angry spouse when we get home.
In short, when unfairly reprimanded by your boss in front of the whole committee, you’re physically better to yell at him or go run five miles. Although the former may feel good, its effects are probably not what you seek. But if in that thirty minutes after the event you can go take a brisk walk for at least twenty minutes, the effects of the hormones will dissipate. Your heart will thank you. Your mind will thank you. Your immune system will sing for joy.
And a funny thing happens—the mind clears, and leaves you in a place far superior for dissecting and dealing with the problem. The smoke literally clears in the brain.
But first, you gotta run from that reality. Literally. Work the stress out of the body, so you can have benefited from the short-term effects, and released what could be long-term physical damage.
How do you deal with stress?