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Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald Headshot

Is Your Stress Response Stuck in the 'On' Position?

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PATRICIA FITZGERALD
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Most of us live in a world with so much comfort compared to our ancestors.

Want that double latte with 2 percent milk? Skim? How about almond milk? Maybe soy?

Can't remember who was the 16th president of the United States? Don't waste time trying to jog your memory or discuss with friends. You can find the answer in seconds by, you guessed it, Googling it.

Lonely? Don't forget, you have hundreds of Facebook friends to reach out to.

Is the room a little chilly? Turn up the heat. A little too hot? Get the A/C going.

In the mood for a green sweater with black buttons? Don't spend time going from store to store looking endlessly through racks. Google will search for you.

Hungry? Don't worry about what the local harvest has yielded this month. You can choose from Thai, Italian, Japanese, raw, cooked, and everything in between -- most of which can be delivered to your door in less than an hour.

You might have flashbacks to when you were growing up, and you'd come home from school to the scent of what was being prepared for dinner. You might be smelling the food for hours, feeling hungry, and guess what -- you had to, dare I say, wait!

In a culture with more creature comforts, paradoxically we experience more impatience, discomfort, anxiety, and depression. We have amazing tools for virtual connection within the digital space, yet we can still feel isolated.

Do you find yourself checking emails and texts every few minutes? Do you get stressed if you don't get a quick reply? And, God forbid, how do you feel if you are in a place with no cell signal for very long? Have you ever left your phone at home or at the office accidentally? Did you feel unsettled until you and your device were reunited?

Do you feel like you are hypervigilant, always on alert? Without realizing it, you may be activating the fight-or-flight mechanism.

But wait a minute, there is nothing to fight or to flee from. The fact that you can't get a cell signal might feel stressful, but it's not serious, right? So why the fight-or-flight response?

Dr. Marc Schoen, author of Your Survival Instinct is Killing You, believes that our intolerance for discomfort is at an all time high. Our fight-or-flight instinct, the survival instinct, is stuck in the on position. We react to circumstances as if we were in life-threatening danger.

The title Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You perfectly describes this paradox: The survival instinct designed to give us tools to fight or flee has turned on us. Now that it is on inappropriately, this response can have the opposite effect. Instead of saving our lives, it can contribute to insomnia, depression, panic attacks, and a host of other health concerns. Instead of being a life-preserver, it can wreak havoc on our health, performance, and quality of life.

It seems like the more we expect comfort, the less we can tolerate being uncomfortable, which is often experienced as impatience. I can remember when I had dial-up Internet. I was used to the time needed for a site to load. And it didn't feel particularly stressful, as the newness of the Internet trumped any possible frustration. Although, as we see with technological progress, as things get faster, we often feel like it can't be fast enough.

Dr. Schoen believes that as our need for instant gratification increases, we are becoming more impatient and addicted to the constant stimulation. The more "sped up" we are, we develop a lower threshold for tolerating discomfort. In those moments of poor discomfort management, we activate the fight or flight response.

Dr. Schoen proposes that the management of discomfort is the single most important skill for the 21st century. We need to handle discomfort without activating the stress response so we can have increased performance, health, and quality of life.

Sounds like a good idea, but how do we actually find that "off" switch? How can we stop feeling "wired and tired" and chronically stressed?

I met up with Dr. Schoen to learn more about this fascinating insight regarding our stress response, our increasing discomfort, and to learn how we can transform this discomfort and impatience into peace of mind:

For more by Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald, click here.

For more on stress, click here.