Stress: Is Fight-or-Flight the Right Response for You?
“About 10 million working days a year are lost to stress” in the UK, according to. They don’t say how many involved bears.
There’s a bear in there
You hear a noise to your left, and you quickly look up. There’s a bear standing there, looking at you. What happens next? You immediately go into the fight-or-flight response, preparing you to deal with the threat. Some muscles in your body tense, in order to provide you with the extra speed and strength you may require. These muscles require more blood flow, so you heart rate increases and your lungs breathe quicker. Blood flow to other parts of your body is diverted, so it can be sent where it is most needed; your vision may narrow; you may begin to sweat; there will be more adrenalin pumping through your body. All of this is very useful in the situation – it is a good reaction to have, it will help you.
What if there’s no bear?
Now you’re calm again, muscles relaxed, and breathing and heart rate are back to normal. Then you open your diary, look at your emails, or maybe just think about how much you have to do today. You might be right back in fight-or-flight mode again – increased heart and lung action, muscle tension, adrenalin running through the body. But this time, none of that will help you deal with the situation. There is no bear this time to fight or run from, so you don’t need to react in the same way. The fight-or-flight response is unhelpful in this situation. Now, it is not a good reaction to have. This time, it is not useful.
How do you react?
Alexander wrote a lot about this. We rely on instinctive reactions, honed by millennia of evolution, to be appropriate to our environment. And they are appropriate to the environment we humans spent most of our history living in - the one with lions, tigers and bears. But we have changed our environment in the last 10,000 years or so, very rapidly in regard to evolution, yet we haven't changed our reactions to perceived threats which aren’t life threatening. So when you perceive something as a threat – an email from your boss, perhaps, or playing a hard piece at your flute recital, or making a speech - you will probably react as though there is a bear in the room. And this will not help you write a calm response to your boss, or play your flute at your best, or speak well.
Alexander taught people to change their responses to the situations they encountered, so they weren’t relying on old reactions and habits where they were no longer appropriate. He developed a technique to replace old, unwanted habits and reactions with new, considered ones. And he knew well from his personal and teaching experience that such a change was possible, with time and practice.
Stress and the mind
The article mentioned above goes on to discuss a study which gives “some credence to the idea that effects of stress can be mitigated by a certain cast of mind.” The study looked at “the ways certain individuals – extreme sportsmen, special operations soldiers – seemed able to develop resilience to the intense physical and emotional stresses of their jobs. The researchers invited some of these individuals to lie in brain-scanning machines while wearing face masks to which the oxygen supply could be controlled. When the oxygen seemed about to be shut off” the subjects “displayed the beginnings of bodily signs of panic – rising heart rate, a burst of adrenaline – but, after sudden activity in the part of the brain that monitors bodily response, the flight or fight reaction was quickly dampened. The subjects experienced stress but they did not overreact to it”. They found that “those best able to ’listen’ to their body’s response, who showed most activity in that part of the brain, were most resilient; those who simply panicked went into a full-blown stress pattern, and found it hard to return to any kind of normal or steady state. It was not clear from the study whether the responses could be learned or were innate.”
Can the response be changed?
I believe it can, as Alexander discovered a method to teach this response. As with any learning, it takes practice, and some people pick it up better, and more easily, than others. But any lessening of the stress response is surely a good thing. If you’re in a situation where the stress response kicks in less than it used to, then you will be less stressed. And if it doesn’t kick in at all, then you won’t be stressed. It’s your reaction, and not the situation, that defines whether it’s a stressful situation or not.
But please remained stressed when there are bears in the room. I know you will.
Bradley Newman teaches the Alexander Technique in Sydney. For more information see firstname.lastname@example.org .or email Bradley on