Optimal Stress Response

September 01, 2015 by John Andrew Williams

We are Designed to Run Away from Wild Animals

It turns out that the human body is finely tuned to handle the stress associated with running away from a wild animal. Dealing with technical problems or being stuck in traffic, not so much. The challenge, especially for high school and college students starting school this fall, is dealing with stress while being forced to sit still for hours at a time. Let’s take a look at the fight or flight model of stress. (The tend and defend is also a fantastic model, too!)

Fight or Flight

The fight or flight response was coined by Walter Bradford Cannon and describes a type of physiological response to stress. It occurs when animals perceive harmful events or threats to their survival.

The core hormone at play is adrenaline. The challenge of this stress response isn’t so much the actual stressor, but our body’s reaction to the stressor that causes the long-term damage to our systems.

The stress response also makes Barbara Fredrickson’s theory of positive emotion Broaden and Build more challenging as well. 

Last week, I had the opportunity to tap into this primal response while mountain biking. There were forest fires in eastern Oregon. Smoke hung in the air at Sandy Ridge, where I usually ride. The animals were acting weird, and as I was cruising down some trail a yellow jacket bit my arm. Here's that story.

It wasn’t a big bite, but it had been a while since I got a sting, and it hurt. My initial reaction was to swat the yellow jacket away and suck out the poison. I had to stop and put my feet out. Then I remembered all the previous times getting stung more than once because I simply chilled out rather than kicking it into gear and getting out of there.

So I hopped back on my bike and went fast. As I was riding, I felt my arm swell up and get itchy. Then I had this thought slip into my head: I am running away from a wild animal. This is what my stress response was designed to do!

It was glorious. I had this burst of energy. I pedaled hard for another 5 minutes, checking every little sensation to see if there was another yellow jacket out to sting me. There wasn’t. I was clear.

After 5 minutes, I stopped. I checked my heart rate. I checked in with my body. I felt so alive. And I knew that my stress response was perfectly tuned to the challenge.

I tried to suck out my poison. But by that point, it didn’t matter. I felt myself coming back down off the adrenaline rush, but the odd sensation was one of victory. I managed to get out of danger relatively unscratched. My body was happy with me, and the feeling was exhilarating.

I completed my ride, drove home, showered and changed, and settled down to make the most of the morning. I checked my to-do list and internal messages. Bam… Issues with the website and email…

If I had to choose between a yellow jacket and technical stuff, I think I’d choose the yellow jacket.

Also read: Listening: #1 of the 5 Best Life Coaching Skills

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