No, brain, I am not being chased by a bear
Are your hands often cold, even when it isn’t cold outside? Do you find you have dry mouth a lot? Would you describe yourself as having digestive problems?
Those are some of the more obvious signs of a body in a fight or flight state. Our brains are wired to deal with acute stress in much the same way it was wired thousands of years ago: to help you survive a life and death situation.
Dr. Moira Mulhern, of Turning Point, gave a talk about the science behind stress, the emotional response, and meditation to an intimate group of my friends (she is such a great speaker, I’ve posted about a left-right brain talk she gave here). We all have heard that meditation is good for us, but Dr. Mulhern explained WHY and HOW it helps.
First, you have to understand that our brains are still fairly primitive. The prefrontal cortex (I have talked about before here, here and here), which governs our reasoning and judgment, is a relatively new part of our brain. Our emotional brain, on the other hand, has been refined over thousands of years. Even though our “reasoning” separates man from apes, we are still wired to have all information come into our emotional, primordial brain FIRST, then pass onto our “rational” prefrontal cortex.
Thus, when we encounter a stressor, it passes through the hypothalamus (which governs the fight/flight response) at the base of our emotional brain. They hypothalamus immediately sends signals to our bodies to get ready to fight for our lives, even if our lives are not in danger. These signals are sent before our rational, prefrontal cortex can logically analyze the situation and descern we are not being chased by a bear. It was just 4 noisy kids all yelling for snacks at the same time.
The signals set off a string of hormonal responses (like increasing adrenalin and cortisol) that result in these symptoms:
- Pupils dilate to let more light in
- Air pathways dilate to let more air into the lungs
- Saliva becomes sticky so it doesn’t flow into the lungs
- Blood vessels in the skin constrict so the blood can coagulate, therefore your hands and feet get very cold.
- Blood leaves the intestines and goes to the skeletal muscles to prepare you to fight or flee for your life.
- Heart pumps and blood pressure rises
- Breathing becomes shallow
- Palms of hands become sweaty
So, now your body is in a fight/flight state, which is ok as long as you are able to recover in between events. The problem comes when a person doesn’t realize they are in a continuous state of fight/flight and the constant symptoms start to cause bodily damage. We call this adrenal burnout. In some cases it can even manifest in chronic disease like fibromyalgia and cancer.
The interesting thing about our brains, however, is that reason cannot reverse the state of fight/flight. Remember, we are wired for information to travel through our emotional brains to our prefrontal cortex, not the reverse. We cannot send a signal to our emotional brains through rational thought. (which explains why dieting can be so difficult!) The only way we can access our emotional brain is through right brain activity. And guess what one of those right brain activities is? Meditation! Here are some other self-calming techniques you can try:
- Repetitive prayer or self talk – the repetition of a word, sentence or simple prayer over and over.
- Repetitive physical exercise like running
- Breathing exercises
- Visualization: Imagining yourself in a peaceful, clam place
- Listen to calming recordings or music
If you practice one of these techniques for 10 minutes, five days a week (don’t just wait until you think you are stressed!) you will become more in tuned to your body’s stress symptoms. Just like a muscle that has been exercised, the mind-body connection will strengthen with every minute of mindfulness. Not only will you feel better, calmer, and happier – when a really stressful situation presents itself, going back to your practice will calm you down almost immediately. We are just like Pavlov’s dog: once that connection has been made, our brains are like putty in our hands…