....and it's all because your daughter ruined your favorite LuLu Lemon pants!
Fight or Flight is something we should ALL understand about our mind and bodies its a function of what scientists call our sympathetic nervous system…
Not just highly reactive people…but every child, every teen, and every adult can be empowered to live a happier life with the knowledge of how our body responds to stress.
Our bodies were biologically created for survival.
The problem is that we now live in a modern world and for some of us our fight or flight reactions come too easily and too quickly….Our bodies are interpreting non- life threatening, stimulus as DANGER. Our amygdala- that primitive part of our brain takes over and literally disables rational thought from happening in our pre-frontal cortex…. When we sense danger we instantaneously respond.
I asked my students for feedback on mindfulness as a tool in our classroom. The students were overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic about mindfulness lessons being integrated into our classroom. Like, on average, a whopping 35 of 37 students in all five periods, had several positive things to say about the practice in their life and in our classroom.
Ok so sadly and yet typical for the human brain, I will admit, I BUZZED through the endless positive reactions and touching comments scanning for negative feedback. I quickly settled on the one to two students that were not feeling the connection with mindfulness….
One of the students admitted that he did not at all connect with mindfulness. He found some of the lessons directions without merit. For example, he explained, why would we try to feel behind our eyeballs…. he saw no point in this activity at all. The non-mindful me emerged and inside I felt a little…well defensive. But, I recognized this and decided to SHIFT my perspective. This reflection -from this resistant student -had GREAT, well-articulated feedback regarding why he did not get the need for mindfulness. I will paraphrase his poignant question: He asked, Why would we need to disengage the Flight or Fight reaction we humans have? It has served us well and has allowed us to thrive as a race.
Note to reader: I have learned from neurological research that our human brain is hard wired to see the negative…again, part of our biological preservation reactions of the sympathetic nervous system. Being mindful of this I decided that my quest for the resistant students was going to be about teaching to my students needs. If these students felt comfortable sharing their feedback then I would find resources and methods of teaching mindfulness that would, perhaps, help them see the gift of this tool in their academic lives. Challenge accepted!
Later that night I was listening to my current favorite read, The Book of Joy written by Thomas Kincade. In this MUST READ, life changing book, the Dalia Lama and Archbishop Desmond TuTu team up to share their philosophies about finding Joy in life. I have the book in print and I also bought the ibook.
So, as fate would have it, I was listening to The Book of Joy that night while doing dishes and Kincade begins to explain the reason we do not want the Fight or Flight reaction. My eyes watered…as it was exactly the reminder I needed to be able to explain to my students, and especially the boy that asked the question, why it is so important to control our Fight or Flight response.
Although I had studied this extensively before in my mindfulschools.org class and shared with students Daniel Siegel’s neurological research (where he simplifies the way the amygdala reacts calling it “flipping your lid” to explain the way we disconnect from our ability to have rational thoughts and pre-frontal cortex)….. the way that Kincade explained it in The Book of Joy was exactly the packaging I needed in this moment with this question…..
In the book, Kincade explains very simply what happens to our bodies when we react to stimulus with our amygdala.
According to Kincade,
“As chronic stress becomes a global epidemic, our stress response is being studies intensively to see if we can unwind its mysteries. It turns out that our perspective has a surprising amount of influence over the body’s response. When we turn a threat into a challenge, our body responds very differently.” (page 97)
He goes on to discuss the research of Psychologist Elissa Epel, who he sites as a leading researcher in this area.
“…she explained to me how stress is supposed to work. Our stress response evolved to save us from attack or danger, like a hungry lion or a falling avalanche. Cortisol and adrenalin course into our blood. This causes our pupils to dilate so we can see more clearly, our breathing to speed up so we can respond faster, and the blood to divert from our organs to our large muscles so we can fight or flee. This stress response evolved as a rare and temporary experience, but for many in our modern world, it is constantly activated. Epel and her colleague, Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, have found that constant stress actually wears down our telomeres, the caps on our DNA that protect our cells from illness and aging. It is not just stress but our thought patterns in general that impact our telomeres, which has led Epel and Blackburn to conclude that our cells are actually ‘listening to our thoughts.’ (page 98)
Kincade wraps up this section by sharing Epel and Blackburn’s suggested solution for stress.
“They encourage us to develop stress resilience. This involves turning what is called ‘threat stress,’ or the perception that a stressful even is a threat that will harm us, into that is called ‘challenge stress,’ or the perception that a stressful event is a challenge that will help us grow. The remedy they offer is quite straight forward. One simply notices the fight or flight stress response in one’s body–the beating heart, the pulsing blood or tingling feelings in ones hands and face, the raid breathing–then remembers that these are natural responses to stress and that our body is just preparing to rise to the challenge.” (page 99)
So, the next morning I remind my students of the amygdala’s response…. and shared Kincade’s explanation to the kids. The boy who had asked the question seemed pleased that I took time to think about and research a response for his question. A very bright but not overly expressive child, I was pleased to see a smile as I told him what I had read…
I reiterated the importance of naming your thoughts and being aware of what is happening in our bodies.
My mindfulschools.org class had taught me that research says that you can control a knee jerk response by your sympathetic nervous system by naming what you are feeling. So, they say, you can ‘name it to tame it.’
In that mili-second between stimulus and a knee-jerk response….if we can recognize signals from our body…. we can stop the cortisol from pumping through our blood…. it takes practice but it is a vital tool for us all.
Research has proven that mindful sitting helps strengthen our brain for this practice. Personally, it is challenging for me to sit on my own. But, I have found an amazing app called “headspace” that is truly my coach daily for mindful sitting. I have been using it with great success 5-7 days a week. I can tell a big difference on the days I sit as opposed to the days I do not.
I have noticed a BIG change in my reactionary responses.
My children have noticed…. Home is which is where my mama drama, fight or flight response are seen most frequently…
I am far far far from perfect. I have much more to learn and I know my brian will continue to grow with my mindful practice.
Mindfulness is not a quick fix, it is a way of living life with awareness and effort. i
For me, the understanding that we, all, to some extent feel this fight or flight response is so empowering.
For me when threatened the reaction was visible, for others it can be flight and they turn inwards.
But, for us all, I am learning that our thoughts and our response to those thoughts are the key to living a happy joyful life.