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Way, way back in the yesterday of yon, man sought to eke out his pitiful existence among the prehistoric rocks of the world. Whilst rummaging among the rubble for a bit of scrumptious sustenance, it was quite possible that, in turning the corner of a large boulder, he would meet something unexpected and potentially dangerous, like a saber-tooth tiger, a woolly mammoth, or his mother-in-law. All, or any, of these could have produced a life saving mechanism in the human body known as “acute stress response” or the Fight or Flight response.

The acute stress response is the body’s way of instantly preparing to react to a perceived or real threat. Whether it’s to attack the source of fear, or to run from it, the body leaps into this mode. Walter Cannon, a life-long friend of Ivan Pavlov (of Pavlov’s dog fame), was one of the first to study this reaction. He proposed it was hard-wired into us. The key difference was if the surprise stimuli caused a reaction of fear or anger. Fear would result in flight, while anger would result in fight.

The brain’s hypothalamus reacts to this stimuli by triggering the release of several chemicals into the bloodstream; adrenaline (Cannon’s hormone of fight or flight) , noradrenaline, and cortisol. Respiration increases and the heart starts pumping two or three times faster providing oxygen rich blood to the limbs, eyes dilate increasing sight, hearing is increased, capillaries close increasing blood pressure to allow one to live even if wounded. Unnecessary functions like digestion and sexual function are terminated to provide blood to other parts. The brain fires signals faster making you more alert and responsive. Unfortunately, the body also may release bladder and bowel control to make you lighter.

In seconds the body is a well-oiled reactionary machine and is ready for whatever comes next. This state of heightened function expends a huge amount of energy and can’t be sustained for long. In addition, long term exposure to stress hormones is not good for us.

So although we have moved several million years away from the cave, the response remains. Remember how you felt when your mom caught you with your hand in the cookie jar? Or after that near miss on the freeway? What about people lifting a car off a loved one in a panic?

It’s not all good however. Your body can have such a response when doing things like talking to your boss or going out on date. Too much of the wrong stimuli can be a bad thing causing heart disease, sexual dysfunction, high blood pressure, and immune deficiencies. A short while ago, DamnInteresting.com produced an article on The Jumping Frenchman of Maine Disorder which causes a different response to stress, like convulsions.

Although exercise is a well-known way to reduce stress, a new report by Princeton University says that running alone can ADD to stress. The study concluded that running causes the release of corticosterone— a stress managing hormone— into the brain, which inhibits the growth of more brain cells. On the flip side, running increases our spacial orientation and neuron communication. The study tested rats running alone and in groups and concluded that running in groups decreased the adverse effects. Maybe it’s another hard wired response making it safer to flee in groups?

A Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson, has developed a theory to combat the fight or flight response when unnecessary by producing a relaxation response, that is, causing the body to release neurochemicals to counteract the others. Dr. Benson believes that the relaxation response is as hard wired as the acute stress response and therefore is as easy to trigger.

The simplest way to trigger it is thus:

  1. Focus on a word or phrase that has a positive meaning to you. Such words as “one,” “love” and “peace” work well.
  2. When you find your mind has wandered or you notice any intrusive thoughts entering your mind, simply disregard them and return your focus to the word or phrase you chose.

Dr. Benson recommends practicing this for 10-15 minutes twice a day. The benefits are lower blood pressure, reduced stress, tranquility, etc. You can further this by repeating your relaxation word while exercising, yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, singing or chanting your word, etc.

It’s a fine line to walk. I want to keep my quick responses for the next time I meet a 10-foot angry prehistoric sloth, but I also don’t want to wet myself the next time I go on a date. Maybe I should stop dating 10-foot angry prehistoric sloths.