Learning to Switch off the Panic Button

Have you ever watched a wildlife documentary where a seemingly peaceful looking herd of zebra are eating grass in the plains of Africa when suddenly from out of nowhere a pride of lions attacks? Usually the scene that follows is very dramatic as the hunt unfolds and the herd are running for their lives.

The way the zebra’s body reacts during intense moments like these gives it the very best chance of staying alive. A part of the brain known as the amygdala fires off the panic button, activating the zebra’s sympathetic-nervous-system (SNS). Chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol are dumped into its bloodstream and the blood is pumped to its large muscle groups to help it run. Energy is diverted away from digestion, reproductive organs and immune functioning to focus all resources on only what is needed to escape. It’s a pretty impressive system and all going to plan the zebra survives for another day.

Then the body switches on its parasympathetic-nervous-system (PNS), the bodies calming system, helping recovery after a big threat.Within minutes the zebra is back to calmly eating grass.

We humans have the same primitive threat alarm system which, despite our completely different environment, is still constantly scanning for threats, on a hair trigger, ready to fire off the SNS with a merest hint of anything alarming.

These days ‘threats’ come in the way of thoughts like “I’m not feeling prepared enough for this afternoon’s presentation”, “I’m never going to get through my to-do list”, or “I think I just sent that group email with the wrong attachment”. Or feelings of worry, anxiousness, anger and frustration. Even email notifications and deadline reminders can be interpreted as threats.

This constant barrage of thoughts/feelings trigger our amygdala to fire up our threat response system affecting the functioning of things like digestion and immune response, and dumping adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. It’s almost like it’s keeping us on a constant simmer of harmful chemicals.

Even after the work day is done we are still checking our smartphones to keep on top of work and reading emails, or facing a new stream of tasks and to-do lists when we get home, so the flood of “triggers” is never-ending. Which means our PNS never really gets a chance to kick in and bring us down to a state of proper calmness. We are in a constant state of heightened alertness.

The long terms effects of ongoing stress on our bodies has been well documented. Muscle tension, heart conditions, sleep problems, digestive problems, and even accelerated aging by shortening the length of each DNA strand, are all possible effects of chronic stress.

Chemicals such as cortisol can also have significant effects on the brain, damaging brain cells and preventing new ones from forming, hindering new learning. An overactive amygdala can also leave us feeling anxious, nervous and depressed, limiting our resilience and creativity.

Lets not forget of course that certain types of pressure are good for us and ‘good stress’ helps us achieve our goals. Long periods of chronic stress, though, can cause all sorts of problems.

Being able to mindfully “turn off” the flow of other noise, and be completely in the present moment, paying attention to what is happening right now, allows the PNS to take over and give our minds and bodies a rest. We are then able to respond more skillfully to situations rather than reacting the way we might normally do.

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