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The fight or flight response was incredibly well designed to help our ancestors survive in the wild. Today the very same response is being activated by our stressful lifestyles and killing us. To see how, imagine you are a caveman and you have been out all day hunting. On the way home you and your cave-friends accidentally startle a pack of wolves. The wolves growl and you pick up a stone to defend yourself. Your feet haven’t moved but the inside of your body teems with activity. The part of your brain called the amygdala sets off an alarm to activate the “fight or flight” response. Adrenaline and cortisol pump into your veins to give your energy levels a turbo boost. Your blood pressure and heart rate jump. The vessels in your lungs widen so you can take in more oxygen. Your pupils dilate so you can see better, even in the dark. Your immune system gets ready to repair a potential bite. Circulation to your arms and legs increases. Systems that get in the way of winning a fight – like the pain message system in your brain and your digestive system – get suppressed. The “fight or flight” prepared you to survive wild wolf attacks.

You hurl a stone at the wolves, and this time you and your cave-friends are lucky. After a few growls the wolves retreat. You let out a sigh as and your whole body relaxes. You walk back to camp where you enjoy an evening by the fire. Life as a Neanderthal is physically hard, but it is predicable and close encounters with wolves are rare.

Jump forward to this morning. Your alarm goes off and you spring into action. Your ‘to do’ list gets played in your mind (and maybe on your smart phone that you have already checked before getting out of bed because it doubles up as an alarm clock). You get up, brush your teeth and shower, scoff your breakfast and pour your coffee into a portable mug to drink on the way to work. There is a traffic jam and you’ll be late for a meeting with your boss. At work your angry boss tells you that your bonus is cut in half because of your late arrival. You need the bonus to afford the holiday you promised your wife. You grip your coffee mug a little tighter and get an urge to hurl it at your boss. Instead you swallow hard, look down, and nod. You walk to your desk and notice your back pain that started when you were an athlete at college (there is no time for sports now) acts up. You reach into your drawer for a few painkillers and wish you could have a few stiff drinks.

Wild animals no longer pose a threat to most of us. But modern day stressors cause precisely the same “fight or flight” response (also called the “stress” response) inside your body that the wolves did to our ancestors. In some ways modern stressors are worse because they are many and chronic. And whereas our ancestors were free to release the stress by throwing a rock or running, today societal pressure forces us to repress our instincts and ‘suck it up’. Chronic stress has been linked to a plethora of diseases including depression, heart attacks, susceptibility to infections, irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcers, weight gain, diabetes, pain, sleep disturbances, sexual dysfunction, memory loss, skin disorders, unexplained hair loss, gum disease, and substance abuse. Stress can also create a vicious circle because the way we deal with stress: television, smoking, drinking, and binge eating, unhealthy sexual behavior, and extreme sports are stressors and risk factors for disease of their own. The fight or flight response also plays havoc with your immune system. Systems required for a healthy immune system such as the digestive system are suppressed, the boost of adrenaline ends up making you tired, and your body gets jittery, not knowing when to turn the stress response (and subsequently the immune system) up or down. This is why stress is related to many autoimmune diseases (diseases caused by the immune system malfunctioning) such as allergies and arthritis.

Stress is a serious problem and none of us are immune. A recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 25% of Americans rated their stress levels at 8 or more on a 10-point scale. The problem is getting worse, with stress levels rising 10% between 2012 and 2013 in the United States.

So paradoxically the very same fight or flight response that was beautifully designed to help us survive encounters with wild beasts, is now killing us. Fortunately the body has an amazing antidote to the stress response: the relaxation response, which I’ll explain in the next newsletter. In the meantime you can do yourself a world of good by simply recognizing that you have some power to control your reactions to traffic jams, bosses, and should do lists. Whenever you feel yourself becoming stressed then – unless a wild animal actually is chasing you – repeat the mantra: “there is no wolf”.


Disclaimers: Jeremy Howick hopes you become happier and healthier as a result of what he writes and says, so please don’t do anything silly. This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor and is intended for enjoyment purposes only. Jeremy Howick disclaims any liability, including any implied warranties or other obligations at law, for the decisions you make based on this information. The views he expresses in this newsletter and elsewhere are the personal views of Dr. Jeremy Howick and are not in any way related to the views of the University of Oxford. To the extent you wish to reproduce any of the information set out above in a product, publication or other service offering, you may not do so without the express written permission of Jeremy Howick. All material in this newsletter is subject to copyright © laws.