The alarm clock goes off. You roll over and slowly rise from your bed. Make your way to the kitchen. Grab a cup of coffee. Open your laptop. And read an accusatory email, perhaps from your boss, best friend, or significant other. Or open an unexpected and exorbitant bill. And you immediately launch into panic mode.
Heart pounding. Thoughts racing. Hands shaking. Stomach churning. Faintness. We’ve all been there. It’s amazing how powerfully the mind can affect the body, even if we’re not in actual physical danger.
When we feel threatened, we activate our sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which accelerates our heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and increases our blood pressure. Additional symptoms include increased metabolism, muscle contraction, adrenaline surges, reduced saliva production, increased blood clotting, and dilated pupil size, all of which would be helpful if we were faced with immediate peril, such as an oncoming car or vicious attack dog. We would have the energy to get the heck out of there, minimize bleeding from a potential traumatic injury, and see more clearly to note possible additional danger. In essence, we are ready to either fight or run.
However, when we’re dealing with day-to-day irritations or chronic stressors, such as poor health, financial concerns, or relationship difficulties, the SNS can stay activated for long periods of time, and this can compromise our health in numerous ways, such as:
- Cardiovascular issues
- Immune system suppression
- Digestive issues
- Cold sores
- Chronically low energy levels
- Respiratory problems
- Decreased sexual function
Effective methods to manage your knee-jerk fight or flight reaction and restore your equilibrium include:
- Deep belly breathing. Pretend that you have a string tied around your waist. As you take slow deep breaths, focus on expanding your lower abdomen and also breaking that string. Deep belly breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which promotes relaxation.
- Close your eyes. It’s been said that 80% of our stimuli comes through our eyes. Whether or not this is the exact percentage, closing your eyes can help to calm you and block out extraneous stimuli that might further antagonize or distract you.
- Count to ten. Mindfully thinking “one” as you exhale, “two” with your next exhale, and so forth, helps to focus your attention on just this moment and to let go off your anxious thoughts. Yes, such thoughts will probably come flitting back into your mind, at which point you can simply note them and then return to focusing on your breath. If you’d like to, you can certainly continue counting your breaths for five or ten minutes, or longer. Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis, whether or not you’re dealing with a stressful situation, can help train you to let go of unhelpful thoughts and regain your sense of emotional balance.
- Put things into perspective. Ask yourself, “How important will this be in five years?” Often the things that seem of utmost importance in the moment fade into the background in a few weeks, if not a few days.
- Share your feelings with someone. Our close friends and family can often help us see what we deem as dire situations in a different light. They may offer valuable advice or just lend a sympathetic ear. Especially when we’re upset, our social connections are vital to soothing our nerves.
- Remember that feelings are not facts. This is not contradictory to #5. Our feelings are valid, because we have them – but they do not always reflect reality. For instance, we can be terrified if a supervisor at work reprimands us, and we may interpret our terror as an indication that we are going to be fired. This is called emotional reasoning. Feel your feelings but do not let them be your only criterion for the truth.
- Take the next indicated step. Instead of getting into a whirlwind of “Oh, no, he hates me… she’ll never speak to me again… I’ll never be forgiven…”, once you’ve centered yourself with the above steps, ask yourself what is most needed right now. Maybe this involves getting further information about the presumed error at work. Perhaps an apology is in order.
- Let go of what you can’t control. Maybe you’ll need to wait to get more information, such as when a colleague with the pertinent information is unavailable. In this case, the next indicated step may be to let go for the time-being and turn your attention to other matters. Remind yourself that ruminating about the issue will not do you any good and will deplete your mental, emotional, and physical resources. While it’s uncomfortable not to have resolved the situation yet, you can live with uncertainty – it won’t kill you. Agree to live through the tension.
- Treat everyone with acceptance and respect. Maybe you’ve made a mistake. Or perhaps someone has wronged you. Either way, accept that people (including you) are fallible, that nobody is perfect, and resolve to treat yourself and others with dignity and kindness.
- Focus on the goal. Spending time finding someone to blame just distracts from finding a solution. What is the goal, today, tomorrow, and going forward? A more harmonious relationship? Improved communication? Better organization of your home and administrative tasks? What you focus on grows. Keep your eyes on the solution rather than on fault-finding or self-condemnation, and you will move out of fight-or-flight mode into mindful pro-activity.