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Stress - Why do I react this way and what can I do about it?

Flashback to this scene, 100's of thousands of years ago. Our Ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in a world where the threat of becoming prey was a real concern.

Just as they had done a hundred times before, they relaxed near the watering hole, enjoying the fruits of their recent forage. All of a sudden, a rustle in the bush nearby caught their attention, their senses heightened, previous experience meant a Saber-Toothed Tiger was about to pounce.

In order to live to tell the tale, our ancestors would have to be able to rapidly switch from a state of “resting and digesting” to one of “fighting or fleeing.” The bodily functions necessary to survive such an encounter, including increased heart rate and breathing, increased blood pressure, increased blood to muscles, and adrenaline release, ready to run away or to fight all quickly kicking into gear to improve chances of escaping death (and my favourite - even sweating serves its survival purpose - it's a lot harder to catch someone when they are slippery!). Bodily functions that were not immediately essential, such as digestion, repair and growth, learning and memory, and reproduction would be put on the back burner.

Once the threat was over, they’d revert back to the “rest and digest” state, where they would remain until the next threat appeared, which may be days or weeks or even months from that moment. The quicker the nervous system at initiating this switch, the greater the likelihood of passing along their 'Sabre Tooth Tiger survival' genes to future generations. Hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection reinforced this.

Fast-forward to today, our brains haven't evolved at the same speed of modern life, meaning we still have the super sharp 'Sabre Tooth Tiger Survival' genes that our Ancestors would be proud of, switching on at super speed, yet, modern humans live in an environment completely different from the one we evolved in, and our automatic responses from our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system hasn't yet caught up.

Instead of spending the majority of our life in a “rest and digest” state as our ancestors did, we are constantly experiencing low level stressors that shift us into “fight or flight.”

The body is unable to distinguish between physical danger and psychological distress and so therefore the human reaction is the same whether the threat is real or imagined (!)

Most of us do not have to fear becoming prey but milder threats such as work demands and deadlines, bills, constant rushing, non-stop emails, and strained relationships create the same physical response in our body as a saber-toothed tiger ready to pounce. Our blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate increase. Digestion, learning and memory, repair and growth, and reproductive function, which aren’t essential for fighting or fleeing, decrease (brain fog? constipation? IBS? Erectile dysfunction? Sound familiar?). Although these changes in physiology are essential to survive a rare Saber-Toothed Tiger attack, they become detrimental to our health if we never shift back out of this stressed state. In fact, many of the leading causes of death can be linked to the effects of constant low-level stress. To our ancestors and to us, stress really is a matter of life or death.

So what do we do? Unfortunately escaping modern life and becoming a Cave Dweller isn't a realistic stress reducing option (for the long term anyway), but protecting our nervous system from constant high alert is. We have evolved and learnt since cave times that we are intelligent beings who are able to respond rather than react to stressors, we can sense check our thoughts and ground ourselves in reality utilising our senses and breathing, we can burn off those stress hormones and look after our sleep and nutrition, learning what works for us to turn on our 'rest and digest state'. Doing this allows us to be able to focus on mind and body repair, growth, learning and memory, rather than on survival and keeping the wolf (tiger) from the door

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