Fight or Flight? Those Aren’t the Only Options
We are all familiar with the fight-or-flight response. Faced with an imminent threat, our sympathetic nervous system jumps into action, increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, constricting blood vessels and increasing metabolism and blood pressure.
We need this fight-flight response, in short bursts, to keep us safe from danger. But the everyday stresses of modern life can turn it into a semi-permanent state – especially during these times of unprecedented uncertainty. This is not a ‘short-burst’ situation.
With no 'off-switch’ available, a body stuck in a continuous state of fight-flight is at risk of numerous stress-related medical conditions. Cardiovascular and gastrointestinal disease, adrenal fatigue, and a lowered immune response are just some of the physiological ramifications.
This assault on our physical self of course has an impact on our mental wellbeing. Home life and relationships suffer. And our ability to perform at work declines, as concentration levels fall and fatigue replaces focus.
But we can cultivate an alternative to the fight-flight response for dealing with the causes of stress: the ‘Relaxation Response’.
The term was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, cardiologist, Harvard professor, and founder of the Institute for Mind Body Medicine. Benson defined the relaxation response as: your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.
In essence, the relaxation response is a state of profound rest. With the release of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin, our body moves toward a state of physiological relaxation, where blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning, and hormonal levels return to normal and our muscles progressively relax.
If this sounds suspiciously like meditation, that’s because Benson was coining a modern, western term for a well established eastern practice – and underpinning it with scientific observation and analysis.
Activities such as meditation and breath practice are ideal for developing our own relaxation response. As a big fan of both, I often recommend them to clients (and to friends) but there is no single method that works for everyone. For some it might be yoga, for others it could be running.
Either way, it needs to be treated like a muscle. It only works if it is regularly used.
So I’d urge you to find your own personal relaxation response and make best pals with it. The need for it has never been greater. And it’s a lot more rewarding, and much better for you, than fleeing or fighting.