The Survival Function That Might Actually Be Killing You, And How To Manage It
Your nervous system provides incredible survival support that kicks in whenever you’re too stressed, scared, or stimulated. This was incredible — back when we used to get chased by lions. Now, it’s a bit of a hassle because we are over-stimulated and stressed all the time in our current society. It can even become a health risk if we are too stressed and stimulated, because our body is constantly trying to jump into survival mode. But there’s good news! You can help shift your body back out of survival mode, which will help you be healthier overall!
If you ever experience a life-threatening situation, your hypothalamus (a tiny region of your brain) rings an alarm. That alarm lets your adrenals know to release a surge of hormones, adrenaline and cortisol usually leading the pack, to help you avoid the threat, whether it’s real or perceived.
What’s interesting about the fight-or-flight system is that it cannot determine if a threat is real or perceived. This means that any time you’ve heard a loud noise, watched a horror movie, or even had a terrible nightmare, your fear of the perceived threat will trigger the sympathetic nervous system just as if the threat was real. It doesn’t matter if the cause of your fear is actually a threat to your life or not. The brain takes in what you experience—whether pleasant or unpleasant—and sends a message to your adrenals to ensure that they create chemical recipes that fit the experience you are having, or the experience that you think you are having.
The sympathetic nervous system is engaged in your triggered fight-or-flight mode. This mode happens more and more often, simply because of the stress and intensity of our busy world. We constantly experience a barrage of attacks to our nervous system in the form of phones ringing, e-mail pings, kids’ urgent requests, sirens, et cetera. The nervous system registers all these triggers as threats . . . whether they really are or not. When your system perceives a threat, all your energy and chemicals are redirected to muscles that could keep you alive. Their function—survival at all costs— is meant to keep you alive, but as a result of this redirection, it cuts off the growth and regeneration of other cells.
Imagine this scenario: you live in the wild, and suddenly you realize you’re being chased by a lion. In this situation, your life depends on whether or not you can escape the hungry animal. Your body creates a chemical recipe that is designed to give you superhuman strength that you will need to escape, a response that comes from the primitive parts of your brain hardwired for survival.
In today’s modernized culture, most perceived threats—such as a meeting with an angry boss, or a significant other wanting to ‘talk’—don’t require that dramatic surge of stress hormones to help us escape danger. Not every situation is a survival situation like your body thinks it is! Yet, because our brain can’t tell the difference, our body launches into fight-or-flight mode anyway. The regularity of our body launching into this fight-or-flight reaction—and how commonplace it is for us to get stuck there—is now at a critical point in human history.
In the wild, we would use up these chemicals that our body just created for the purpose of survival by running away from the lion. However, when the perceived threat is based in our mind and not in real-world danger, we don’t burn through the chemicals by actually following through with the fight-or-flight reaction. The good news is, at least we aren’t in danger of being eaten by a lion. The bad news is that when we don’t get rid of those excess chemicals, they can stay in the body and become toxic.
We call these toxic levels of stress hormones chronic elevated stress, and according to the American Psychological Association, this condition can be directly linked to other chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, dysregulated metabolism, and increased agitation or irritability. This harmful condition can also impair our emotional well-being and central nervous system. When we’re in this heightened fight-or-flight mode for extended periods of time, our physical health is not all that’s compromised; chronic elevated stress also negatively impacts learning, creativity, and overall cognition, which isn’t a good combination for our health. When we’re feeling that kind of emotional trigger, we can forget about ingenuity or abstract thinking.
Providing the yin to the above yang is how the parasympathetic nervous system works. Put in simple terms, the parasympathetic system promotes the growth and regeneration of the immeasurable volume of cells that our body sloughs off every day. But it can’t do any of that if the survival mode is always kicked into high gear and can never take a break from the race.
With all this in mind, can you see how crucial it is to get rid of the stress hormones swirling around in your body so that your parasympathetic nervous system can to do its thing? Both of these nervous systems must be able to cooperate to keep the whole of you balanced, healthy, and alive, yet despite this teamwork, they really compete with each other. This means that while you’re in fight-or-flight mode, your parasympathetic nervous system turns off and is unable to support your internal organs. Between the sympathetic nervous system that is in charge of the fight-or-flight, and the parasympathetic system that oversees rest and digest, the sympathetic always wins. Because when you’re being chased by a lion, hormone balancing, cell regrowth, and proper organ function take a no-questions-asked backseat to the priority of outrunning a giant man-eating cat. It’s only once you realize that the threat has abated or was never real that the parasympathetic system kicks in and returns your body to its natural, pre-stress state.
So when you feel and act like you’re being hunted by a hungry lion, even though you’re working at your desk all day, your body doesn’t know the difference. It still prioritizes survival over other standard functions such as creative thinking. Your body wants to keep you alive, and it’ll do everything in its power to help you escape the threat—even if the threat is really your boss, a call from the principal at your child’s school, or a really terrible argument with your significant other.
The nervous system processes your experiences and sends a flood of powerful hormones into your body to produce whatever chemical recipe is necessary to handle your experience. In light of knowing how your nervous system gives orders to your body, here are some tips that will help you keep your system balanced:
- Take the time to cleanse your body of stress hormones and other harmful chemicals through physical activity.
Running and other higher intensity exercises burn off the stress hormones, which is absolutely necessary, while lower intensity workouts like yoga stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting healing, growth, and regeneration.
- Control your sensory input.
Try to avoid exposing yourself to violent television, high-stress physical environments, and any other kind of experience that creates tension in your sensory areas, including what you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste.
- Do things to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
This means engaging in activities that encourage your body to rest and destress. Adopt a relaxation practice like yoga or meditation. Be aware of your breathing, and breathe deeply from your diaphragm. Or awaken those nerve endings by lightly rubbing your bottom lip from one side to the other and back with your finger, quickening the body’s restoration to a pre-stress state.
- Avoid talking on your cell phone on the drive home.
You know that the person you talk to is going to complain about their day, and someone who’s been waiting for you to get off work so they can unload is not the best person to talk to. Also avoid social media until you have given yourself time to rest. Give yourself some transition time between work and home.
- Surround yourself with positivity.
In addition to avoiding stress and other negativity, you can also proactively seek positive interactions. Listen to an uplifting story or podcast, or read something pleasing to you. Look at inspirational photos, and surround yourself with strong, happy, positive people.
- Properly nourish your body.
Your body cannot heal and grow if it is not properly sustained. Drink plenty of water and eat foods that keep your mood balanced, rather than food or drink that is likely to cause a spike in either direction (like excess sugar or alcohol).
- Get a full night of quality sleep.
The average person needs seven to eight hours of sleep each night, and sleep is very important to your health and healing. Stay off of your phone before bed so that you can fall asleep easier, and try to avoid hitting snooze eight times before getting up in the morning.
- Adopt a vitamin regimen.
This goes along with properly nourishing your body. Eat healthy foods that will provide you with important nutrients, and take vitamins for any nutrients in which you fall short, like vitamin C that can help reduce stress. You can also take supplements to help encourage the body’s natural production of serotonin or dopamine, like ginkgo biloba or curcumin.
- Do your research.
Know your body, and educate yourself about what makes it run. But don’t self-diagnose or guess at supplementation. If you have any doubts or concerns, don’t hesitate to get help from a professional. Knowing your body is the first step to owning your body.
If you follow all of these 9 steps, you will easily manage your toxic buildup, for a happier and less-stressed chemical recipe! This will lead to more productivity, better relationships, and better physical health for you. Toxic buildup can drag you down, leaving you tired, stressed, and even causing health problems, but the keys to managing it are simpler than you ever could have guessed. Stick to these, and you’ll move mountains!