By Edward Enever, Naturopath | Cancer Coach
The “Fight or Flight Response”. Most of us would be somewhat familiar with this concept and ourselves experienced it in some way, shape or form. When met with a clearly defined threat, the body’s response is to launch a “survival mode” which gears the body up for battle or to retreat. Imagine your great uncle Ug walking down a bush path and a sabre tooth tiger jumps out and he’s a rather hungry sabre tooth tiger. In this moment Uncle Ug has two options – fight or flight – Either raise up and battle the tiger, or to turn and run. In either option the body must gear up to achieve this and this is what the fight or flight response is.
Stress is a funny old thing isn’t it? It doesn’t really get the full credit that it deserves. Because stress is an intangible, subjective concept, unlike something like a skin condition that is clearly visible and measurable, stress often gets written off. “I’m JUST under stress” or “I’m JUST under pressure”. The role of stress in the development of any disease is not fully appreciated largely because of this, but believe me, there is no JUST about it when it comes to stress. As mentioned at the beginning of this article when under stress our body launches the fight or flight response. Now this isn’t a small affair. The fight or flight response is a full body major physiological event that affects all the body’s systems and it is designed to save your life, not make you sick. Unfortunately in this day and age where there are many “sabre tooth tigers in disguise” such as the job we hate, the unfulfilling relationship, the fight with the spouse, being time poor, FIFO work, lack of sleep, the bill you cannot pay and financial over commitment to name a few, we are surrounded and bombarded by tigers. In response to this constant bombardment our body does its best it can to protect us and we find ourselves in a state of chronic persistent stress.
If you were to get all your stressors and lump them together and somehow measure the impact these stressors are having on your body and health, this is called your allostatic load – a very important term. Most people’s allostatic load is higher than what they give themselves credit for and it is this high load that is causing the wear and tear on the body eventually leading to the dysfunction and chronic dis-ease of the body. I mentioned earlier in this article that stress is a major, full body physiological response that affects all systems of the body. To summarise some of the major effects on the body please see the following table:
|Blood pressure increases|
Blood cholesterol increases
Blood sugar increases
Inflammatory chemicals increase in the blood
White blood cell count increases in the blood
Blood clotting ability is increased
Contraction of the heart increases
Blood flow to the digestion decreases
Blood flow to the reproductive system decreases
Nervous system activity increases
Muscle tension increases – ready to pounce
Breathing rate increases
The small tubes of the lungs open up to facilitate maximum oxygen transfer
Your begin to perspire (sweat) to regulate body temperature
Pain receptors altered
As you can see the above table lists some of the major physiological changes that occur in the body, but these changes have a knock on effect as well on the other systems and functioning of the body. The main point I am trying to make here is that stress and high allostatic load has a major impact on your body, your health and your happiness.
So what do we do about it? Did you know that fight or flight has a lesser known cousin? It’s called the “relaxation response” and not as many people are familiar with this term. To the degree that your body can launch that full blown stress response, and the impact it has on your body, it can also do the opposite and launch the relaxation response reversing these effects. The problem is, the relaxation response is only launched when the body feels safe, secure and nourished and this is where the problem in this crazy, hectic world lies. With so many tigers constantly bombarding us there is hardly any space for the relaxation response, and we pay the price for it. To heal any condition the body must be in a conducive environment to do so. Fight or flight is not a conducive environment to heal. It is designed for survival, not healing. The relaxation response is where healing occurs. So if you want results from your medication, chemotherapy, radiation, herbs, diet and supplements, the body MUST be in a conducive environment CONSISTANTLY. Consistency is the key here. One of the most powerful tools you can use to induce the relaxation response is through mindfulness meditation. Meditation quietens the body, relaxing it and trains the mind and body to change its relationship to stress – The stressors can still be there but they don’t need to necessarily impact the body and your health. By training your mind to become more mindful you begin to identify the moment of choice between stimulus and reaction and in stresses case – the moment between the stress and how you choose to respond and allow it to impact your life.
The relaxation response is nothing new. It is a part of our makeup and has been around as long as the fight or flight response has. The problem is because we are so disconnected from it, don’t know how to induce it and again, we don’t give it space to do its thing, we suffer. There’s a popular saying that goes a little like this – you cannot heal an illness with the same conditions that helped to create it. Said another way – if you keep doing what you have always been doing you will keep getting what you have always been getting. The signs and symptoms that you are suffering with are your body’s feedback mechanism (body language) alerting you that the environment you have created for it is not conducive to health and happiness – its asking you to change. My questions to you is “What part of this environment is due to high allostatic (stress) load?” and “How loudly does the body have to ask for change?”