The fight/flight response or stress response is an emotional and physical way of coping that has been part of human behaviour since we were living in caves, fighting off big scary sabre tooth tigers! As you could well imagine the emotional response needed by our ancestors would have needed to be quick and decisive, very black and white. No room for error and definitely no opportunity for our logical mind to come in and analyse how best to respond!
Fast forward to the present day and this way of responding is still hardwired into our brains. We have three ways of coping when our stress response kicks in; run away, freeze and play dead or fight back. Our body acts very quickly, heart rate and blood pressure soar and most non essential functions shut down. In the modern world this response is rarely needed or appropriate but it is still just as powerful as when we were living in caves. Considering alternative options, deviating from our black and white thinking pattern and listening to the voice of reason just doesn’t enter the equation, because we need to prioritise and focus on the perceived danger very quickly. Also being highly emotional in this state we are focused on how we feel and think and act, not on any external input. Of course when we are calmer and off a state of red alert, our mind of logic and reason is there again for us to access.
The REM state:
If we stay in this high emotional state, when stressed, for longer than about two minutes we simultaneously power into action the REM state, whose primary function is for learning. In this context it is there in the unconscious background, taking copious mental notes. This may be to avoid, or approach carefully, any situation that is either the same or similar to the one we are experiencing when stressed. Sometimes we will keep, in our more immediate memory, anything about that experience that is particularly traumatic to remind us of what to avoid. A clever survival tactic that unfortunately is a key cause of a phobia or post traumatic stress.
So, for example, witnessing a traumatic accident involving a red bus could then lead to someone having a phobia of red buses in the future, if that is what the brain tags onto from the accident. This is simply the emotional mind trying to keep us safe no matter how silly the rational mind thinks we are! So like a car alarm that goes off at the slightest bit of wind, our in built stress response can react inappropriately and in reaction to a situation that is perceived as dangerous
However in most situations once the stressful moment has passed we can get on with our lives and put it into the context of a past event, and with that goes the initial emotional impact.
It is important to note that a full blown stress response will only happen if we get past a certain point of emotional arousal, or simply put when our emotions get the better of us. This could be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” situation where there has been a build up of stress or the difference between being involved in a minor or more serious car accident. Of course we all have our own limitations for what will set off this response. The better we are at managing our emotions the easier it is to recover from a stressful situation, put it behind us and move on.
Our Stress Bucket:
Like a bucket that is there to stop a leaky pipe; ideally you need to check and empty the bucket regularly, to make sure there is ample space to allow the water to keep dripping in. If we regularly process any unhelpful emotions that inevitably come into our lives, we give ourselves the space and mental capacity to enjoy life, and deal with any unexpected stress that comes along. If we leave them unchecked and ignored they will eventually overflow and cause excess stress. Managing our emotions is a valuable way of bringing an element of control into our lives, which is particularly helpful when managing stress.
Anyone who successfully manages extreme stress will also need to be good at managing their emotions, whether they are aware of that or not. A Fighter Jet Pilot, an Air Traffic Controller or a Paramedic will all need to be good at managing their emotional state, if they are to excel in their highly stressful jobs.
Breaking the pattern:
There is a simple yet powerful adage; “If you always do what you have always done, you’ll always get what you have always got” When we feel down, anxious or stressed it can seem very difficult to look out from under the clouds, take stock and consider what changes we can make to improve our situation. As we know this is predominantly because our focus is typically very black and white, so it’s much harder for us to see the shades of grey and get a sense of perspective.
What resources do we possess to make the change we desire?
So with this understanding you can see how it is helpful to prepare for those inevitable emotional times, when you are calmer and more in control. Nearly all of us can remember times when we have cheered ourselves up and seen the positive, brighter side of life, or simply felt calmer and more in control. Learning, in detail, exactly how we do this can give us a powerful tool for coping in difficult times. When we are resourceful what exactly do we say to ourselves internally? Do we do something physically to change our situation for the better? Do we go somewhere different? Who do we speak to? What positive inspiring past experience can we recall? It is usually the small changes that can set into motion the bigger differences.
In any emotional mood or thought change there is nearly always an external trigger of some kind. Recognising the trigger and then understanding the pattern or routine that follows allows you to interrupt and make changes. This then gives you back an element of control and changes the outcome. It’s like the process involved in turning right when driving a car; braking, changing gear, looking in our mirror and all the other tiny elements of the process. Yet if we decide to use the left indicator instead of the right the result may completely change.
Small incremental steps lead to giant leaps towards change
To really improve your chances of success and break the pattern you need to be willing to try making lots of small, different changes to see what works for you. For example if you tend to feel down at the end of the day when you get home, put some inspiring music on instead of watching TV, make plans to call a friend, or allocate a specific time to just focus on your emotions with complete awareness and acceptance and don’t stop until your time is up, before moving onto something else. Try any of these variations to break your mood pattern; change or limit the timing, change the location, change where and how often, introduce something new, or break the process into smaller chunks. The key is to be prepared and approach your emotional mood as a process which you can take back control of and improve, using small changes.
Our Emotional Needs
By understanding our emotional response to stress we can see it is an intrinsic part of human evolution, which has evolved as we have. We are also aware of certain basic physical needs which are essential to our survival such as food, water, air and sleep. It has recently been established through the Human Givens approach that we also have emotional needs, developed over thousands of years of evolution, which have become ever more complicated and important to us and the way we interact with the world around us.
When we feel emotionally fulfilled and are operating effectively in society, we are more likely to be mentally healthy and stable, equipping us to manage stress better.
Some of the key emotional needs that have been recognised:
- To give and receive attention
- A sense of autonomy and control
- Security- safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
- A sense of status within social groupings
- Being part of the wider community
- Intimacy and friendship
- Being emotionally connected to others
- Sense of competence and achievement
- Meaning and purpose-which come from being stretched in what we do (create) and think
The extent to how important each of these emotional needs are will depend on the individual, and usually changes during different periods in their life. Typically we will search, without a conscious awareness, to have our most important needs met in whatever way we can, which can lead to unhealthy choices, both on an emotional and physical level. So recognising which needs are particularly important to us and how we have these met in our lives is a valuable asset to managing our health and well being.
Ultimately if all or most of your emotional needs are being met in a healthy way, you are far better equipped to manage stress and anxiety. You can read more in my article about Emotional Human Needs.
Everyday Stress and Anxiety Management
We know today’s busy world can negatively affect our anxiety and stress levels. Unless we decide to have no contact with the human world there will always be opportunities for stress to be present. Yet let’s remember there are many subtle everyday forms of anxiety and stress which motivate us into action and enable us to live our lives well, so it is clear we can comfortably manage stress and anxiety at a certain level.
It is when stress and anxiety overwhelm us that problems can be created and this is where it is very helpful to put into practice the theory of managing our emotional state. We want to be able to manage and control our response to stress before it becomes a problem, and if it does, know how to recover quickly with minimal impact to our wellbeing. This means we can then function normally by feeling in control and calm, by making rational decisions and by giving ourselves options and choices.
A key strategy for managing stress and anxiety:
Just as the stress response is a remnant from out ancient past, the ways that we are best able to prevent, manage, and recover from stress today, would have probably been the same.
As humans, completion is an important way for us to be able to move forward and commit a thought, emotion or action to the past. We all know how frustrating it is when we forget the name of somebody and have that “it’s on the tip of our tongue” feeling, or unexpectedly and temporarily stop a task we are in the middle of. There is a sense of relief and achievement when we remember the name or finally get to finish the task, and quite often it’s not even that important anymore!
There is a powerful link to this act of completion, of going from a beginning to an end, and to managing stress. As we know when we experience a stressful situation, the fight or flight response is triggered to a greater or lesser degree. This is a biological process that needs to complete, and if it doesn’t happen the emotion can stay in our mental “pending tray” for stress to remain after the event.
The most recent research has revealed that the main purpose for dreaming is to metaphorically diffuse and process uncompleted, high level emotions from the previous day. The dream/REM state is a stage of sleep that is very similar to our awake state, so too much REM sleep and we can typically wake feeling exhausted, which can lead to a vicious circle of increased daytime stress, which can also increase the likelihood of depression.
So having this awareness and knowing how to reduce our stress through completing our emotions is a valuable tool, during times of intense or consistent stress.
Here is a simple, helpful fifteen minute exercise for when you have had a particularly stressful day or experience, which is still bothering you:
Preparation- Find a pad of paper and pen. Sit down and relax by really focusing on your breathing. Deep, powerful in-breaths from your stomach, in through your nose. Slow, long out-breaths through your mouth, ideally with the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
Emotional sensitivity- Recall in your mind, the event, emotion or thought, that might have caused particular stress or anxiety that day, even if it is a reoccurring one. At this point grade the level of how anxious or stressed it makes you feel when you think about it, from 1-10, with ten the highest level of emotion.
Achieving completion- If you need to go back to the breathing exercise to feel relaxed, before starting this stage. You are now looking to observe your thoughts and emotions in relation to the cause of the anxiety that you graded above. Think of this as a mental detox, solving the cause of the anxiety is not your main outcome here.
In a factual way, with no judgment or emotion, start by mentally observing how you felt and thought when you first experienced the cause of the anxiety. If easier write down your response. What can you see differently as an observer? Is there a solution you can see now that you didn’t earlier? If an emotion starts to develop ask yourself what is it’s purpose?
You might see a solution, or alternatively make an agreement with yourself for a temporary ceasefire. The terms ideally need to be desirable, realistic and achievable and to a specific time frame, even if the ceasefire is until the following day.
Finally go back and grade your emotional response on the scale of 1-10 and be surprised at the result!
Complimentary strategies for stress management:
Most of us are so used to being bombarded with information that stimulates our brains on such a constant basis, that it would be a shock for most to go back in time thirty years, never mind our caveman days. To truly give our mind a chance to recharge we need very low levels of stimulus, such as reading, listening to music, or of course meditation, yoga or any form of light exercise. Watching TV can be fine if it is part of other forms of relaxation.
Establishing an opportunity to relax every day for fifteen minutes will make it far easier to consistently manage and reduce stress than collapsing on a Sunday, after a heavy week, and calling that relaxation. The stress bucket metaphor is again a useful reminder in this circumstance. Also relaxing at times when you are not stressed has far more impact and benefit in managing potential stress over the long term, compared to attempting to relax when you are already stressed.
Fight or flight (exercise) activates our immune system and allows the physical energy and emotions related to any stress to be used effectively and released, freeing up space for new emotions to be present. This is one of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent and manage stress, so it is important that you find a type of exercise that you enjoy and is accessible on a regular basis. It ideally needs to raise the heart rate slightly above resting, yet not necessarily higher. What is important is that it is regular, ideally once a day and for at least twenty minutes.
By understanding our innate patterns for stress management and our emotional needs, and relating these strategies to today’s world, the benefits of this approach can be better understood and valued. This is especially true when combined with the traditional and complimentary stress management approach, encompassing relaxation and exercise. You can contact me here to arrange your free telephone consultation.
Ref; Human Givens A New Approach To Emotional Health and Clear Thinking by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell
By Lawrence Michaels