From "Never Let Them See You Sweat" -- RACE DAY ARRIVED DURING my high school track days. As schools of runners, jumpers, throwers and pole vaulters competed on that sunny day during a high school track and field meet, anxiety started running through my veins because the 100-meter dash was coming up, and I was one of the racers. Even though I was fast, I had one of the most common knee problems seen in adolescent girls, subluxing patellas after years of playing sports growing up. This means, my kneecaps where unstable and move laterally out of joint in certain positions and with certain activities.
While stretching, and warming up for the race, my nerves got me thinking of a way to fix my knee in place. Instead of asking the trainer or coach for help, I took matters into my own hands, and I put an ankle brace over the knee for added stability. I thought that way I could really push hard while sprinting and not worry about my kneecaps tracking out of the joint.
“On your mark. Get set. CRACK!” The gun went off.
I started running, if you could call it that. I was the opposite of a graceful sprinter. Every time I tried to bend my knee the brace was so tight is snapped my leg back straight again, essentially making me limp throughout the running stride, like a lame horse that needed to be put down (not that I would ever condone that). But I could see the look on my coach’s face a mix of wonderment, at what the heck was going on with me, surprise and disbelief as I came in last place. The moral of the story is sometimes we can overcompensate for stress and make matters worse.
Before we talk about relieving stress and anxiety, it’s important to understand why we experience it in the first place. Because stress does serve a physiologic purpose. Stress is a survival instinct, and as we will see, it can be harnessed. It keeps us alert and aware of danger, focused on a task and even motivated.
So, it’s important to know that stress and anxiety are not character flaws or personal weaknesses. It’s natural and 100 percent normal and an evolutionary response we developed to keep us safe.
Our brain and nervous system instruct our body to produce hormones that help us cope when acute stress arrives. This physiological response releases hormones by the adrenal glands including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol -- which is often referred to as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, which I would add, fight-or-flight-or-freeze response.
Stress is our biological chain reaction meant to support and protect us. During prehistoric times this “fight or flight” response was the evolutionary adaptation we developed to help us survive life and death situations while hunting and gathering. So, when facing a life threatening situation, our body activates its autonomic nervous system (ANS) with this response so you can either fight like a badger or run like a deer. However, the stress response can stop you in your tracks or make you faint, which may seem counterintuitive but some evolutionary biologists theorize that, in animals, freezing may give the more time to assess their situation for eventual escape.
Nevertheless, our ANS controls the activities that are not voluntary and pertain to our internal organs. It is made up by our parasympathetic nervous system which control body functions at rest like digestion. And our sympathetic nervous system, which prepares our body to respond to the environment in fight or flight response.
Luckily today, most humans rarely have to flee from predators, yet life is full of stressors -- even during happy occasions we can feel tension building up. Our stressors come in the form of social, financial and emotional varieties. In fact, stress and anxiety are among the most searched for topics regarding mental health. These last two years have highlighted even more, with Americans are feeling these added pressures from the uncertain time we have been facing during this pandemic. A recent Gallup Poll found that more than 50 percent of Americans feel stressed-out or burned out most of the day.
But our protective stress response is supposed to be self-limited and temporary. After the cause of stress is over, the body rebalances so we feel calm again. But let’s take a closer look at what is happening in our bodies.
-- Subscribe to get the book when it's available. Coming soon! --