“Wouldn’t it help if I were prepared for what happens to me?”
If you have experienced an extremely threatening event where you felt your life was in danger and you could not exert control to change it, you’ve experienced the “fight or flight” response. This is the body’s automatic reaction and it prepares you for lightening-speed decisions. The chemicals released cause an increase in your respiration rate and blood pressure, and blood is directed into your muscles and limbs for running and fighting. Your pupils dilate, awareness intensifies, sight sharpens as you scan and search the environment for danger.
Afterward we may revisit the event and wonder, wouldn’t it help if I were prepared for what happens to me? At the moment this thought appears, you may notice that you begin to feel similar body sensations as before. The heart pounds faster, you may begin to shake. This is the cognitive aspect of processing trauma. “What if…. If only…” – You want to be sure it never happens again. So the brain tries to remember and learn from the threatening event… “if only… I’ll never… “ and
“If only my life had background music so I could tell what the heck was going on!”
Think of storing memories as being like putting away groceries. When a person experiences a traumatic event, it’s like the memories were stored by shoving too much stuff into a cabinet. And anytime it gets opened, all the “stuff” explodes as it falls on your head.
If not processed properly, your experience can spiral into generalized anxiety and panic attacks, or worse – a syndrome called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With PTSD, ordinary events can serve as reminders of the trauma and trigger flashbacks or intrusive images. A flashback may make the person lose touch with reality and reenact the event for a period of seconds or hours, or very rarely, days. A person having a flashback, which can come in the form of images, sounds, smells, or feelings, usually believes that the traumatic event is happening all over again.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is best treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medications. People with PTSD should seek out a therapist with specific experience and background in treatment post-traumatic stress disorder.
If you have experienced a traumatic event and the “flight or flight” symptoms won’t go away, please consider counseling to help you cope. With a qualified therapist, you can learn new skills to help process, manage and resolve the distressing thoughts and feelings related to the traumatic life events.
Here are 8+ ways to quiet the overactive stress response:[i]
The best way to turn down the activity of our fight or flight response is by physical exercise. When we exercise, we metabolize excessive stress hormones, restoring our body and mind to a calmer, more relaxed state.
For the purpose of stress reduction and counteracting the “fight or flight” response, we do not need to exercise for 30 to 40 minutes. Any form of activity where we work up a sweat for 5 minutes will effectively metabolize and prevent the excessive buildup of stress hormones. Get down and do 10 pushups, 10 sit-ups, jumping jacks, jump rope, run in place, run up and down the stairs, whatever. By exercising to the point of sweating, we effectively counteract the ill effects of the fight of flight response, drawing it to its natural conclusion. Frequent repetitions of short spurts of exercise are easy to fit into our busy schedules. For full cardiovascular fitness, longer periods of exercise do have additional benefits, but for the purpose of stress reduction, mini-exercise sessions are practical, effective and beneficial.
Exercise also increases our natural endorphins, which help us to feel better. When we feel good, our thoughts are clearer, our positive beliefs are more accessible and our perceptions are more open. When we feel tired and physically run down, we tend to focus on what’s not working in our lives—similar to a cranky child needing a nap. It is difficult to be, feel or think positive when we are exhausted, sleep deprived or physically out of condition.
Calming the Overactive Physiology with the Relaxation Response
“I’ve experienced many terrible things in my life, a few of which actually happened.” ~ Mark Twain
Mind chatter is the endless, restless stream of incomplete thoughts, anxieties and self-talk which constantly pulses through our minds. In order to survive, our mind is always “on”, searching for possible threats, dangers, solutions and explanations. This is called our “strategic mind.” This constant vigilance of the mind not only distracts us with excessive worry but can also trigger the activation of our “fight or flight” response. Sometimes, because of the mind’s incessant chatter and worry, we even begin to anticipate dangers or threats that don’t really exist.
Underneath all the mind chatter and “fight or flight” anxiety lies a quiet place –our Inner Voice, the Observing Self, or the “witness.” This quiet place allows us to move beyond our fears, anxieties and the strategic mind—into a clearer understanding and knowing of what is true. A quiet mind calms our overactive physiology, creating a sequence of physiologic and biochemical changes that improve our physical health.
The simplest, most exquisite way I know of to quiet the mind is by eliciting The Relaxation Response.
The relaxation response, discovered by the inspirational author and Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson, M.D., represents a hard-wired antidote to the “fight or flight” response. The relaxation response corresponds to a physical portion of the brain (located in the hypothalamus) which, when triggered, sends out neuro-chemicals that almost precisely counteract the hyper-vigilant response of the “fight or flight” response.
When we follow the simple steps necessary to elicit the relaxation response, we can predictably measure its benefits on the body. These include: a decrease in blood pressure, diminished respiratory rate, lower pulse rate, diminished oxygen consumption, increase in alpha brain waves (associated with relaxation), and in many cases, an improved sense of mental and spiritual well-being.
Because the relaxation response is hard-wired, we do not need to believe it will work, any more than we need to believe our leg will jump when the doctor taps our patellar tendon with a little red hammer. The relaxation response is a physiologic response, and as such, there are many ways to elicit it, just as there are many ways to increase our pulse rate (another physiologic response).
We must take the time to exercise our relaxation response “muscle.”
The solution to over activation of our “fight or flight” response is simple: when we take the time to exercise our relaxation response “muscle” we will enjoy the beneficial physiological, biochemical and mental effects. These beneficial effects are measurable whether we believe in the relaxation response or not. Some people do experience immediate emotional calm and tranquility when they learn to elicit the relaxation response, but others do not. We cannot measure the effectiveness of the relaxation response based on how it feels. Dr. Benson likens this to brushing our teeth. We know brushing is “good” for us, whether we feel it works or not. Feeling good is an added benefit. The most important thing is to actually take the time and discipline necessary to elicit the relaxation response. Once elicited, the benefits to our overstressed physiology and biochemistry will be experienced. Additionally, we bypass the fear and anxiety that so quickly narrows our perceptions and infects our beliefs with suspicion and doubt.
The key to deriving the benefits of the relaxation response is to practice it daily. Dr. Benson recommends at least 10 to 15 minutes, once or twice a day. This will produce the maximum benefit. Treat the relaxation response the same way you treat brushing your teeth. Do it because you know it is good for you. Don’t worry whether you think you had a “good relaxation response” or not. You wouldn’t say to yourself: “That was a good tooth brushing!” would you? Whether you “felt” it was a calming, relaxing experience or not, the physiologic benefits of doing the relaxation response are measurable, predictable and repeatable. The quieting of the mind that results from eliciting the relaxation response is critical in order to open up our perceptual world, away from negativity and fear. This freedom allows us to be more awake, more aware and more conscious of the attitudes and beliefs we choose when living our daily lives.
Ways to quiet the mind
Because the relaxation response is a physiologic response (like our heart rate or respiratory rate), there are many ways to elicit it:
- a. Focus on a word or phrase that has a positive meaning for you, like: “I am calm, I am at peace”. Effective phrases might also include, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” “God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
b.When you find your mind has wandered or you notice any intrusive thoughts, simply notice them and return your focus to the word or phrase you chose.
Be aware that your mind will tend to wander and intrusive thoughts will enter your mind. This is normal. Just allow those thoughts to pass through your mind like a summer breeze passes through an open window. The second step above is related to our ability to “let go” of intrusive thoughts or excessive worries. To summon the healing effects of the relaxation response, you need to surrender everyday worries and tensions. This gets our harried minds out of the way of our body’s natural ability to heal. It’s funny to watch the tricks our mind plays on us. It will try to tell us things like: “This is stupid, why am I sitting here doing this?” “I hope no one sees me here meditating.” “This will never work.” “That’s it, I’m going to quit now.” When you realize your mind has wandered, just let go of the thought and return back to your word or phrase.
Remember, whether your mind wanders or your thoughts drift, simply practicing the two steps above will elicit the relaxation response and deliver beneficial physiologic and emotional benefits as predictably as flipping a light switch causes the light bulb to shine.
- During any repetitive exercise such as walking, swimming or running, repeat a “focus word” or phrase with each step or stroke. For example, when walking, with each step you might say “peace and calm”.
- Practicing yoga, with its mental focus on postures and breathing.
- Deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises, with a focus on the breath.
- Progressive muscle relaxation techniques (PMR), where you alternately contract and then relax each muscle group moving progressively from head to toe, will elicit the beneficial effects of the relaxation response.
- Repetitive forms of prayer.
- Singing or chanting a focus word or phrase, either silently or out loud.
- Mindfulness meditation, a method that comes from Buddhist philosophy and involves merely “observing” or “noticing” things. For example, we may walk down the street and say, “My feet are touching the pavement, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. I notice the tree ahead. The top branches are swaying in the breeze. I’m feeling thirsty. My body is sweating. My feet are on the grass now. The grass is soft.” By simply noticing our experience and naming it, without judging or evaluating whether it is good or bad, we tap into a source of active meditation that elicits the relaxation response. The world around us and the world of feelings within us become our focus.
The key is to simply notice our world and our feelings. No judgements of good, bad, right, wrong, lazy, weak, strong, kind, mean, etc. are given any attention. This is similar to simply disregarding any intrusive thoughts.
Emotional mindfulness might sound like: “I am feeling sad. Tears are welling up in my eyes. I am remembering the hurt I felt when _______.” Notice there is only the simple acknowledgement, recognition and naming of the feeling or event. Any judgements about our feelings are to be passively disregarded with a return of one’s mental focus to the observation or naming of emotions or bodily sensations. (For more information on mindfulness, read the remarkable work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in his books Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are.)[i]