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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Modern Life and the Fight or Flight Response

Brent Tiesma | Tech CA

Whether you’re drinking your morning coffee, stuck in London traffic or being chased by a werewolf in the subway tunnels in England, all of these involve your sympathetic nervous system and your Fight or Flight response.

Fight or Flight is a wired reaction to ensure you’re at peak awareness in any event your body perceives as stressful. It launches a cascade of involuntary & nearly instantaneous reactions throughout the body to ensure you see another sunny day. This was great for early Homo sapiens since death stalked around every corner. The subconscious could quickly decide whether to fight or flee long before they could even process that a saber tooth tiger was jumping out from the bushes.

So what physiological responses occur when your body initiates Fight or Flight and what does it all mean in this day and age?

When your body perceives a threat (real or otherwise) your brain sends a distress signal to the Autonomic System (The ANS controls all the involuntary functions of the body, such as breathing, the beating of the heart and blood pressure to name a few) and it’s sympathetic system jumps into effect with a cascade of chemical, physical and hormonal changes. First, adrenaline and noradrenaline are released into the blood stream. In turn, the heart rate increases, arteries constrict so blood pressure rises, the pupils dilate, your ability to hear decreases, blood gets redirected to the muscles and extremities, the bronchioles in the lungs open up to allow in more oxygen, energy stored in the muscles is liberated thus providing a burst of energy while non-important functions are essentially shut down (like the immune system, salivation, digestion & small task functions of the brain). Everything is heightened, focused and at peak levels!

Now there is nothing wrong with the Fight & Flight system, it’s a natural process hardwired into our bodies and without it we wouldn’t enjoy roller coasters, goose bumps or scary movies, much less survive extreme danger. However, it does present some unique challenges in the modern age. For instance, this same system can over-react to a long list of daily stressors such as deadlines, financial issues and even screen time late at night. To the evolutionary processes of the brain, there is very little difference between a nagging partner and a saber tooth tiger. Except the saber tooth tiger is probably the preferred stress response – No joke. You see, when you’re home safe in your mud hut relaxing on your new saber tooth tiger carpet, the body takes its foot off the gas pedal and initiates the much needed braking function to maintain homeostasis and recover (next month’s article). In the 21st century there is little opportunity to do that. For a majority of people they are confronted with stressors big and small nearly 24/7 and this creates a very unforgiving feedback loop that we can see  playing out on our ‘healthcare’ system right now. Being sympathetically driven can permanently damage blood vessels and arteries while raising the risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and obesity. After all, the body needs continual sugar to fuel these life or death reactions, which makes you want to eat to obtain extra energy. It can also lead to adrenal fatigue (when your body is depleted of the raw materials to support he sympathetic response) and has shown to increase the likelihood of poor decision-making, depression, anxiety and addiction.

At each of our Practice Member’s milestone visits we assess how well the body is adapting to the stress by measuring Heart Rate Variability (HRV). Examining the intervals between each heart beat gives us a direct link to autonomic system and can be used to gain insight into the nervous system, stress and ability to recover.

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