If we imagine that we are a Neanderthal walking calmly and, suddenly, we hear a tiger nearby, our entire body would begin to react in a nanosecond. Our heart rate would increase, our eyes would dilate, and our body would start to produce adrenaline.
Now imagine that fight or flight response permanently active. Nowadays, our tigers are social media, politics, Covid, money, childcare, climate change, job stress, family dramas, etc. Indeed, humans areessentially a group of Neanderthals trapped in that fight or flight mode 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
As psychologist Stephen Porges, PhD, explains in an interview with PsychAlive, “These responses are not voluntary. Our nervous system is collecting information from the environment, not on a cognitive level, but on a neurobiological level. ”
Our thinking brain decides that we have nothing to be anxious about, so we spend our days telling ourselves that everything is fine while still feeling the physical symptoms of anxiety throughout our bodies. What’s worse, our thinking brain can begin to criticize and embarrass us for continuing to be anxious even after we’ve told it that everything is fine.
Our survival brain wants to keep us safe, but when we ignore our body and its signals due to these rationalizations, the survival brain actually perceives that as something even more threatening. Like a toddler, it will throw a louder tantrum until his message gets through.
When our body has a response to stress, one of the best ways to help our survival brain feel safe is to draw attention to where our body is in contact with our environment. For example, becoming aware of the contact between our feet and the ground or our body with the chair: as soon as the survival brain perceives the connection with the earth, it feels safe and automatically begins the recovery process.
Obviously, when we are caught in a moment of severe anxiety, paying attention to these details or trying to breathe deeply can seem almost impossible. In these situations, what we need is to get adrenaline and cortisol out of our system.
An example can be a good walk. Just breathing and moving on, for as long as we can, following a rhythm that allows us to feel good. While taking a walk sounds simple, physical activity can help us think more clearly, sleep better, fight depression, and generally live longer and healthier.