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  • by Alona Pulde, MD

When Surviving is Not Enough

Your alarm clock just went off and the only thing you want to do is stay in bed. You can barely muster up the energy to open your eyes and get ready for the day, and its only 7am. The morning coffee jolt may or may not get you through the morning. Regardless, the noon and afternoon lull will hit you like a ton of bricks. And you have the whole evening ahead of you. How do the days continue to end up like this you wonder? And, how much longer will you be able to go through the same routine?

If this sounds familiar, what you are feeling is burn-out from years of living in survival mode. So many of us go through our day “surviving” or “hanging in there.” But how many of us would rather be “living the dream” or at least “living a dream”. How did we get here? And more importantly, how do we get out of here? The good news is we have more control over both of those answers than we think.

The ability to shift to a survival instinct, of fight or flight, was an evolutionary advantage. Our ancestors literally remained alive because they were able to fight or flee from a saber tooth tiger or similar threat. The difference for us today is that we rarely face such an actual threat to our survival. More often, we experience a perceived threat such as traffic, work stress, and family drama. Our brain registers danger in the same way whether it is perceived or actual. As such, our fight or flight response is triggered in the same way whether we are running for our lives or running from an angry boss.

When fight or flight is triggered we have elevated stress hormone (cortisol) levels running through our bodies. We may notice our heart beating faster, our breathing becoming more shallow, sweating, irritability, indigestion or “butterflies” in our stomach, muscle tension, trouble concentrating, or trouble falling or staying asleep.

Stress is something we all experience. Occasionally it can be really helpful as it motivates us to greater focus and productivity. In cases of real danger, stress can elicit the fight or flight reaction that can literally save our lives. But more often, stress is an unfortunate side effect to the demands of our lives.

Years of working under continuous stress takes a toll on our body. For example, on a day to day we experience fatigue, restlessness, trouble concentrating, hypervigilance (seeing everything as dangerous and working hard to protect against it), irritability, difficulty sleeping, stomach upset, headaches, muscle pain, or over or under eating. Over years this amplifies and becomes exhaustion, anxiety, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, insomnia and so on…you get the picture.

Life is what it is, and we cannot always change the circumstances we find ourselves in. We can, however, change our reaction to those circumstances and therein lies our power.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor Frankl

Here are some tools you can use to combat the fight or flight response:

  1. Exercise – The fight or flight response is meant to be followed by an energy or extinction burst. As a result, exercise is a great way to break down the excess stress hormones and help to calm our body down. An additional benefit is the release of feel-good hormones called endorphins. These exercise bursts do not have to be long but they have to get your heart rate up. Try 5-10 minutes of jumping jacks, running in place, or jumping rope.

  2. Remember you are safe – Communicating compassionately to yourself helps to embody a sense of safety. This may sound like “Every breath I take in I know that I am safe and every breath that I take out I know I am ok.” So, rather than the brain hearing it is in danger, it hears it is safe and it is ok. Over time what the brain hears is what the body will know and believe to be true.

  3. Meditation – Finding time to rest the body and mind in meditative practice helps to elicit the relaxation response (the body’s way of reversing the “fight or flight” stress response). Sitting quietly, in a comfortable position, learning to breathe slowly and deeply, with guided mediation or in a quiet resting place for 10-20 minutes a day can really help decrease our daily stress.

  4. Find your calm – If meditation is not for you, there are so many other ways to rest and replenish . You can listen to music, take a walk, enjoy a bath, or get a massage among other things.

  5. Optimize your diet – Fill your body with the healthy nutrients it needs to feel energized and nourished. Anxiety, fear, and stress all increase when we don’t provide the body with the nourishment it needs to function. Foods to include more of are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Make sure you hydrate over the course of the day, with water being the best choice.

Regardless of where you start, the key take-away here is that self-care is important to combat the daily grind of “fight or flight”. Take the time to find what helps you relax, unwind, and replenish and incorporate it into your daily routine.

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