Fight, flight….or breathe: Some thoughts on managing stress

  • Published
  • By Maj. (Dr.) Leigh Johnson
  • 8th Medical Group clinical psychologist
A zebra grazes tranquilly on the African plain. It's a beautiful, sun-dappled day. The zebra glances up, and locks eyes with a lion ... closing in for the kill. Instantly, the zebra's body kicks into survival mode: muscles tense, heart rate accelerates, and breathing becomes rapid and shallow -- preparing the zebra for intense muscular effort. Blood diverts away from the zebra's extremities to minimize potential blood loss and protect vital organs. Systems not absolutely essential for survival (digestion, immunity, sexual response) are shut down so that resources can be diverted to systems that are critical for survival. If this zebra is going to survive, it's going to have to RUN.

What does this have to do with you; or with stress?


When you are faced with a threat, your body behaves in the very same way as the zebra's. If you think this is a stretch, consider the last time you were in a vehicle and had a near accident ... the last time you were running late for a very important meeting ... (or the last time you walked by the Wolf's suped-up SUV and realized that you forgot to salute).

The physiological responses described above are governed by the sympathetic nervous system and are collectively known as the fight or flight response. This response instantaneously and automatically mobilizes your body's resources to optimize your chances for survival. It works beautifully in the case of acute physical threats. The problem is, "threats" in the modern world aren't typically acute and physical, such as being hunted by a lion. Rather, the challenges faced by humans are chronic (deadlines, work, bills, spouses, co-workers) and psychological (worries about the future, regrets about the past, doubts about one's abilities, the list goes on). Humans, along with social primates, are the only species on the planet that are capable of provoking wildly erratic emotions simply with our thoughts.

Every time we worry, we activate the fight or flight response to some degree. Unfortunately, the system that works so beautifully in the face of an acute threat was never intended to be activated chronically. Over time, chronic activation of the stress response causes each of the systems involved to break down -- leading to heart disease, high blood pressure, suppressed immunity, ulcers, chronic aches and pains, loss of sex drive, and infertility, among other things. It is estimated that 75 to 90 percent of visits to primary care really stem from over-activation of the stress response.

Aerobic exercise, social support, nutrition, adequate sleep, faith, and humor can all be powerful buffers against stress. But when it comes to consciously controlling our body's physical response to stress, there is one tool that works better than all of the others: our breathing. Yes, I too rolled my eyes when I first heard this. When you force yourself to take slow, deep breaths, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, you take conscious control over the sympathetic nervous system and signal for it to slow down ... to reverse the fight or flight response. Diaphragmatic breathing is something you can do anytime, anywhere, whether first thing in the morning before you face the day, or throughout the day as you start to notice anxiety, irritation or anger building inside of you. Over time, ten minutes of daily, focused diaphragmatic breathing has been associated with reduced blood pressure, a slower heart rate, improved immunity, and even reduced cancer risk.

Research has demonstrated that monks, who practice breathing exercises daily in the form of meditation, have honed this skill enough to completely override their body's automatic response to stress. Faced with extreme cold, heat, or visually distressing images, their bodies do not respond at all, no change in heart rate, muscle tension, etc. Ultimately, the mind, when harnessed correctly, can trump the body. But most of us live life the other way around, with our bodies, and external circumstances, calling the shots.

So, if you want to reduce stress and improve your health, the solution is simple: take a moment to breathe! The truth is, stress management is more than a technique--it's a lifestyle. When stress is managed well, you can add years to your life -- and quality to those years.
For more information, contact the Kunsan AB Mental Health Clinic at 782-4841.