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How Modern Lifestyles Activate Ancient Stress Responses

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Do you feel fried, get easily irritated, or sink into negative states of mind faster than you used to? Do you want to collapse and cocoon at the end of the week? If so, consider what might be going on with your stress level that might be affecting your mood. In our fast-paced lives, where routines and long hours pound away at our brains and bodies and reduce our leisure time... our stress response gets overused. Stress tends to lead to more stress. Pressured lifestyles can cause us to generalize our feeling of pressure, we start to perceive everything as stressful, and we react accordingly. The upshot of this is that we actually experience more anxiety and little fears. We become over-sensitized to stress.

Our sensory apparatus operates beneath our level of awareness busily breathing, walking, fetching, carrying and gathering the millions of sense impressions, sights, sounds, smells and so forth that allow us to navigate our world. This is a wonderful, unconscious process that lets us live life freely and fully. But modern living can fill us with way too much input, and we go on sensory overload. Once overloaded, we're an accident waiting to happen, something tips us into our too much zone, and pretty soon we're experiencing everything as stressful, we're over-responding to all manner of daily interactions and situations "as if" they are a threat.

How does this cycle get going? Fight/flight was designed to be used in times of danger, not throughout the day. But the body can't tell the difference between real and fabricated fears, between the stress of a bad phone call, a traffic jam and an elephant charging -- it will react to all with the same highly-geared stress response evolved by early man. Our stress response is inextricably tied up with our survival system, which is triggered into action through fear. Fear is what signals the fight/flight/freeze survival defenses to engage. It is one of evolution's most adaptive emotions. Without it we might head straight into the middle of traffic or pet a mother lioness. We need our fear -- it's nature's way of shouting at us to keep away from danger. But flipping the stress switch into the "on" position too often can devolve into anxiety, depression, adrenal burnout and compromised immunity. We start to process stress too acutely and have trouble finding balance. This is hard on our body, mind and relationships, to say nothing of our general peace of mind.

The Unconscious Fear Pathway: Why Our Body Remembers But Our Brain "Forgets"

When we get scared, there are two primary pathways that our fear runs along. One is a conscious and the other is unconscious. One pathway, the implicit or unconscious pathway, is associated with our amygdala (read: fight/flight). Our sense of danger performs the task of activating the amygdala. When we get scared, the amygdala's discharge patterns activate our body's fear circuits, which increases our heart rate and blood pressure. We get sweaty hands, dry mouth, and tense muscles. In order to respond quickly to a threat, to flee or fight, for example, the body tries to divert blood flow from the digestive areas and the face, head and neck so that it can be used elsewhere. We think less and do more. This has the effect of elevating heart rate and blood pressure and increasing respiration.

Fear leads to biological changes induced by adrenaline. Adrenaline prepares the skeletal muscles for strain as may occur in: running for escape (flight) and protecting self or property (fight). If diversion of blood from the cortex is too fast, a person can faint, go numb or freeze. We, in other words, shut down our thinking. Ever get called on and forget the answer you know you know? If we don't engage in vigorous physical activity following arousal, uncomfortable physiological changes may occur such as: trembling in the arms and legs, general weakness, or a heightened awareness of breathing and heart rate. If we can't flee or fight, those biological urges can get stuck in our body as thwarted intentions or actions never taken. It is these urges to flee or fight, these actions never taken that get triggered repeatedly throughout our lives (or our day) when our old unresolved fear and hurt from past situations and relationships gets triggered by relationships in the present. They emerge as over reactions; transference reactions, projections or they drive reenactment patterns.

Second Pathway : Why We Get Re-triggered in Contexts That Are Reminiscent of Previous Hurts

The other pathway, the explicit or more conscious pathway, is associated with the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the brain structure that supports our explicit or conscious memory and provides the context for experiences. It allows us to learn about and assess our surrounding circumstances along with their level of threat or friendliness. The hippocampus is particularly sensitive to the encoding of the context associated with an aversive or painful type of experience. This is a small bit of information that has large implications in terms of how painful memories from the past can get triggered in the present. It is because of the hippocampus that not only can a stimulus become a source of conditioned fear, but so can all the objects surrounding it and the situation or location in which it occurs. This is how painful memories from old situations or relationships can become generalized or projected into new ones.

Old Stress Upon New Stress

The barely conscious parts of us that sort of haunt us and secretly make current stress feel more intense or (wait for it) scary, can cause us to overreact. Baggage, in other words -- we all have it. All that stuff we never talked about because talking about it made us feel vulnerable or ashamed or stupid, the stuff we hid, from others and even from ourselves, can emerge when we are "reminded" of it, just as a car backfiring can make a soldier drop to the far because it reminds him of gunfire, a child who got yelled at can want to freeze or hide or burst when they encounter yelling as an adult. And that baggage, that potent part of us that holds unresolved (unconscious) emotion from yesterday can get a mixed up with the situations today.

Making Unconscious Memory Conscious

It takes words to drag feelings up from an unconscious level. We need words so that we can translate what we're feeling into language, so that we can think about it, talk about it and reflect on it. Sometimes emotional pain has no words, it sits in a sort of shocked or frozen state, that's why it is unconscious. Without words, without language, we have no way of making conscious sense of our experience. Rather, it remains part of our vast web of "body memories" stored by the part of us that is on automatic, so to speak. But when new stressors trigger these old "contexts," we can find that our situations of today feel almost unmanageable. The upshot being that circumstances that in a calmer state of mind we might handle more easily can feel like a last straw and we over respond to them, we blow them up and make them bigger than they need to be. Which of course just blows them up even more. In our overblown state we create more stress, more complication. We go into hyper-drive. Living in a state of over responding to stress can become a pattern that leads to anxiety, depression or self medication. We get into an anxious state that we can't down regulate, so we grab something that can do that for us like sugary, fatty or starchy snacks,that will release a shot of calming dopamine in our brains or alcohol, drugs to make us go numb. We need to learn to live as if our own well being and personal comfort is more important than responding to every little thing that comes our way.

So How Can We Fix This?

Stay ahead of stress: Make sure down time is a part of each and every day. Short down times several times throughout the day help stress not to build up.

Don't over-schedule yourself: This is a sure way to feel constantly under the gun and over time can create chronic anxiety.

Separate old fears from new ones: Use the new fears that trigger the old ones as teachers. Let them tell you where you have some emotional closet cleaning to do.

Be less of a perfectionist. Perfection is a strange task master. It creates the illusion that there is some sort of thing as perfection. Sometimes less is more. Most successful people will tell you that they learn to let things go in an "imperfect" state.

Don't buy the myth that more is better. Live slowly and intentionally so that you can actually enter the present and savor what you already have. You may find that simplifying your life makes it feel fuller than constantly chasing after what you think you "need" to feel happy.

Process and move through old pain. Unresolved pain from the past can intrude on our present. We live in the wound, so to speak and it bleeds into our present day relationships. Finds safe ways places to bleed where the bleeding will be accompanied by understanding, support and positivity. Twelve-step rooms are great for this.

Live sanely: You can probably have it all, but not necessarily in the same decade. Don't pile up so much experience that you can't live it and you lose touch with what's really important to you. You need your own attention to yourself and those you love need you while they have you.

Love what you have, change your attitude: All relationships are two-sided. If you change what you are putting in, see if it changes the dynamic. It's worth a shot and can shift you from the victim role to the co-creator role. It's empowering to take new tacks and see where they go.

It's your life, live it consciously.

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