‘Panic gripped him, the colour drained from his face, his heart started to beat faster which was in thudding contrast to the rest of the world which was rapidly slowing down around him, he trembled slowly feeling his muscles tense, his breathing quickened and that feeling of restless and dread overcame him when he knew inevitably what was going to happen’.
We’ve all had times in our lives when the ‘fight or flight’ response has kicked in, when our body gets primed to take action, when our brain’s close down rational thought, and our pure survival instinct takes over.
Yet you don’t need to be in a war zone, being mugged or hanging off a cliff for this to happen, for most people the fight or flight reaction happens when they are doing something far more mundane. For some of us all it takes for our body to trip into survival mode is to turn a corner and see your workplace on your way to work, perhaps it could be a brown envelope in our letterbox containing exam results or another bill, or perhaps all it takes is the sight of an audience in front of you as you rise to speak.
The fight or flight response is a survival mechanism, for thousands of years it has helped humanity survive, it has helped us be physically ready in times of danger and focused on staying alive. It has always meant to be there in reserve, a short term response to a dangerous stimulus, a source of strength we could tap into when needed, and a reservoir of stress hormones that would rev up our body’s systems to make us ready for any emergency and then be switched off again as our body recovers.
The trouble is for some people the flight or flight response stays on, it doesn’t switch off, in stressful jobs we can program ourselves to be in fight or flight mode most of the time and even when we should be relaxing switching off our mind gets pre-occupied with work, with deadlines, with past events and we stress about ‘what ifs’ and about what ‘may or may not’ happen.
Our mind perceives our worries as being dangerous, it perceives them as being real, and even though there is no imminent danger to our life it doesn’t matter the fight or flight response still switches itself on.
You wouldn’t be surprised that if the body is exposed to this type of stress for a long period of time things go wrong and there are biological consequences to a prolonged heightened stress level, the wear and tear to the body when an individual is exposed to chronic stress is called the allostatic load and although the fight or flight response is essential to manage acute life threatening threats it can be very damaging to the body in the long run.
As the level of stress increases so too does the allostatic load, stress hormones in the body are released namely (cortisol and adrenaline), our myocardial workload increases, the smooth muscle tone in our gut changes, the blood becomes more able to coagulate, our blood sugar levels increase and our blood pressure spikes.
The effects of an increased allostatic load is well known, we know it can lead directly to cardiovascular disease and hypertension and it’s no wonder that the peak time for having a heart attack is in the first three hours of waking up in the morning.
The more subtle changes of increased allostatic are gradually becoming better understood; a weakened immune system, the disruption in diurnal rhythms, a disruption in natural sleep, increase in neuro-muscular tension, over stimulation of compensatory mechanisms in the body and even neuroplasticity changes to structure of the the brain itself.
The subtle signs of increased allostatic load I see in my practice every day, the migraines, the tension headaches, the neck aches, the panic attacks, insomnia, irritable bowel, tiredness, fatigue, fibromyalgia, stress and clinical anxiety and depression.
It takes seconds to see that someone is looking tense, maybe their breathing is higher in the chest and more rapid, perhaps they can’t sit still, maybe it’s the pallor in the face, the tone of the voice, the irritability in their manner or it’s just the feeling that follows them when they come into the consultation room.
Some people spend their entire lives in a state of high allostatic load, they are permanently ready for flight or fight, they are ready to snap at the least bit thing (it’s not just Ronnie Pickering.
The book this article is taken from is about ridding ourselves of negative thoughts, of anxiety and of learning how to develop better thinking habits, and that means that as well as the specific changes to our thought patterns and emotions using the tools in the book, we must also learn how to turn down the overall allostatic load in our body.
This article was adapted and taken from our book on overcoming anxiety and negative thoughts which introduces you to tools and techniques that will have a major impact on your well-being.
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