The human body boasts an amazing capacity for self-preservation in the form of fight or flight. When faced with a dangerous situation– say, a hungry lion– the body goes through a stack of biological changes that let us either A) fight off the hungry lion, or B) get the hell outta Dodge.
As soon as your brain recognizes there’s a situation that requires a stress response, the body goes into immediate action. Stress signals zip up to the amygdala, which lets the hypothalamus know that stress hormones are needed ASAP.
“On it,” says the the hypothalamus, and immediately throws a big ol’ hormone party. Adrenaline is the first to arrive, along with its bestie, norepinephrine. Cortisol shows up a bit later.
Every guest brings a little something.
Adrenaline makes your heart pound, which increases the amount of oxygen that can be delivered to the muscles. You feel a surge of energy, along with a burst of razor-focused attention.
Norepinephrine increases your responsiveness as well, while directing blood flow away from non-critical areas and toward more essential places, like the muscles.
Then cortisol kicks in to do a bunch of other flight-or-flight things, most notably shutting down body functions that aren’t needed to fight off or run away from hungry lions.
And all of this within just a few moments of that first awareness of a stressful situation.
When your body is flooded with stress hormones, you’re at your most physically powerful, mentally alert, and entirely capable. Your muscles have all the oxygen they could possibly need, and your attention can focus completely on dispatching the stress at hand; everything that’s not needed to fight off or flee from a hungry lion is conveniently slid to the back burner and out of your way.
You are tensed, poised, and ready to fight. Or flight. And once the whole lion fiasco is behind you, your body returns all your hormone levels to normal, and life goes on as usual.
Aren’t we miraculous machines?
Oh, except– well, there are one or two caveats to fight or flight.
Given the notable absence of hungry lions in our modern day-to-day, our bodies now send up fight or flight reactions to things like… a long daily commute in heavy traffic. Forgetting to pay a bill on time. Starting a new job. Maybe those things don’t make your heart race and your palms sweat, but any stressful situation triggers a fight or flight response in your body– even if it’s so mild you don’t feel much different.
And once your body shifts to fight or flight mode, any stressful event maintains the fight or flight response long-term. The body constantly asks “Hey, are we safe? Can we relax?” And even the tiniest things– that blown deadline or that minor tiff with your boyfriend or that forgotten dry cleaning — they all tell your body “Nope! Not yet!”
Not that you’ll notice. Maybe you feel tired lately or discouraged, or things just seem off somehow. Nothing huge. But over time, life starts slowly going wrong for you, physically and mentally.
The amygdala? That part of the brain also regulates emotions. And decision-making. So when your body is under constant low-grade stress– or under short-term, higher stress levels, like during the first few months at a new job JUST FOR A RANDOM EXAMPLE– you can’t make good decisions.
And I mean, quite literally, you CAN’T. You are biologically incapable.
The part of your brain that’s devoted to higher decision-making functionality does not receive enough oxygen to work right– that oxygen is being diverted to your muscles, remember?
Other things go wrong too. Your digestion sucks, and your sex drive plummets. Norepinephrine limits how much blood flows to your stomach, intestines, or naughty bits while you’re stressed out, plus cortisol doesn’t think eating or getting frisky is important when you’re fighting off lions. Another thing cortisol messes up is your immune system. And your blood pressure. And your blood sugar levels.
Now, I can’t say how long it takes to fight off (or run away from) a hungry lion successfully. Maybe an hour or two? But you can live without sex drive, appetite, digestion, regulated blood sugar and blood pressure levels, and even higher thought processes for an hour or two, no problem.
You cannot live very well without those things for months. Or years. And because your brain isn’t working right while your body’s in a constant state of defense, you can’t make smart choices about your health and wellness, your state of mind, or your future. That’s why after you’ve quit a shit job or left an unhappy relationship, you look back on those days like they were a foggy blur, like you weren’t acting like yourself. You weren’t yourself; it’s not until you’re well and truly away that your body says “Okay, guys! Coast is clear!” and resets your hormones back to normal levels that your brain starts working again.
I wake up most mornings with no preamble, straight into overdrive, mind racing and heart pounding. I don’t remember ever not being this way, although sometimes I have the odd morning where I’m content to laze my way into the day. I chalked this up to personality; every morning I’m thankful for a husband who thinks my “morning rambling fast brain” is “cute.” I tell him it’s exhausting, like the hamsters in my head are running their wheels in overdrive. He doesn’t believe me.
Turns out it’s not my personality. The latest lab tests ordered up by my new doctor showed that I have abnormally high morning cortisol levels; what I’ve always thought of as my most productive time of day is actually my very worst time to make decisions, because it’s my cortisol-drenched lizard brain calling all the shots.
I take this stuff at night now to tell my morning cortisol production to knock it the hell off and can’t believe how much more serene and clear-headed I feel when I wake up. Not like I’m drowning in to-dos before I even get out of bed. Not like the interminable list of what has to happen RIGHT NOW is so long that I’ll be tangled up like a rubber band ball way before lunchtime. Not sweaty and gross and wondering why it feels like I woke up from running a marathon instead of sleeping all night.
Sensible. Calm. Big-picture vision, not tunnel vision. The way human brains and human bodies are supposed to work.
Even though each of us is far more than simple biology, this reminds me that we are all fancy monkeys who still answer to Mother Nature. That we’re too smart and stubborn for our own good, continually trying to make major decisions and life choices when we our daily lives are so chronically stressed.
In fact, our stressed-out lizard brains are biologically incapable of comprehending anything beyond the immediate. It’s only in the absence of hungry lions that our minds can turn toward what lies ahead. Daydream. Meander. What if. Think and revel and maybe philosophize about it all a bit.
When’s the last time you swept your own horizon clear of hungry lions?