We have all heard of the fight or flight response, also known as the stress response, and we have all experienced this at one time or another (and maybe even daily).
Here’s a quick biology refresher: Our autonomic nervous system controls many critical bodily functions. It is what keeps our heart beating, our blood pumping, our lungs breathing, our spleens spleening. There are two parts of the ANS: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. Parasympathetic is operation status quo; think parasympathetic = peace. Parasympathetic does all the things in normal daily functioning. Under stress the sympathetic system kicks in to conserve resources and to redirect energy toward the threat. This fight or flight response was a part of survival, when we were confronted with saber-tooth tigers.
Fast forward to our overwired lives. Look around. How many people do you know who are taking a stimulant (coffee, Red Bull) to rev up, and a depressant (booze, food, TV, Ambien? to slow down? Plenty.
I recently had an eye-opening reality check about how our environment impacts our physical bodies. Within one week, I heard three stories about the physical toll of living overwired: First, a client recounted a high stakes, high stress conference call where the “big boss” demanded to know who within the team had dropped a ball. Reluctantly, a manager named the individual on the team. When my client called him at the conclusion of the meeting, she only reached his assistant. Her colleague was en route to the hospital with chest pains.
Two hours later, I saw a long-term client who was making significant strides on managing her mood and stress. She described a trip to the doctor for her perpetually racing heart. Though she is young and healthy, the stress she feels from work and the world around her is resulting in a perpetual sympathetic stress response. In fact, she had not slept a night without her Ambien in over seven months. (Rather than changing our environment, more often than not we simply pop a few more pills, thereby putting a Band Aid on the problem!)
Finally, the following day, a family member was hospitalized for a “racing heart.” Again, he was healthy, fit, and young; the only explanation given was generalized stress.
All of this leaves me wondering about our current lifestyles and professional expectations. What is the new normal regarding stimulation or stress? What are we creating? How can we regulate? And what are the long-term, lasting consequences if we do not adapt or adjust our lifestyles?
If the brain is designed to be adapting and changing, what is the perpetually stressed state doing to our wiring? Where are there positive adaptations? Negative adaptations? What are the long-term lasting costs and consequences?
I explored many of these issues in my book Rewired, and I am eager to learn more about this overstimulation, which is both environmental and neurological. I am eager to find out what different tools, strategies, and resources are available to regulate these neurological reactions, beyond traditional pharmacology. And I will certainly share it here.