Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Cooling the engine

Christmas is coming … Some people look forward to it. Many do not. You may recognise some of the following scenarios; you may well have other reasons for finding Christmas a challenge. You’re facing the first Christmas since you lost someone close to you. There isn’t enough money to do the things you’d like to. Those happy TV ads look nothing like your family life. You feel all your friends have more invitations than you do. You’ll be spending Christmas alone again. Your partner leaves everything to you. You meant to get fit beforehand to look your best but you’ve been tucking into festive meals. You can’t stand the crowds in the shops. You know you’ll drink too much and regret it. Your parents are making you choose where to spend Christmas.

It’s likely that some or all of the above would make you feel stressed and anxious. And if things are mostly going pretty well in your life, you may still be starting to feel the clock ticking towards the deadline. Over the next weeks I’m going to share some thoughts on stress and anxiety, and offer some suggestions as to how you might help yourself.

First up, it might be useful to consider what a stress response actually is. There’s plenty of neuroscience out there to explain what’s going on in our brains, and I’ve found Russ Harris in his book The Happiness Trap and Ruby Wax in Sane New World to be among the best at making the science accessible. Russ explains that when we feel threatened, we move into fight or flight mode – either we defend ourselves and stand and fight, or we run away. And there are physical changes in our bodies to facilitate this: ‘Your heart rate speeds up, your body floods with adrenaline, blood shunts to the large muscles of your arms and legs, and your breathing increases to give you more oxygen’. Ruby adds that when the stress hormone cortisol is released, activity in the hippocampus (the part of our brain which organises memory) is reduced, and cortisol also stops our digestion and the urge to have sex, as ‘thinking about sex or eating during a disaster would only make things worse’. 

In prehistoric times, we needed this response to keep ourselves alive, to detect where the dangers were and respond appropriately. Here’s Ruby again: ‘Out on the Savannah, our physiological responses were perfectly suited to deal with stressors (run from the big animals with big teeth). These days we can’t just run from what drives up our anxiety and stress: mortgages, money problems, looking hot, relationships and deadlines. Evolution did not set us up to suffer Jurassic Park levels of stress, day in, day out. That’s the bitch of living at today’s pace.’ Russ Harris believes that ‘our mind, trying to make sure we don’t get killed, sees potential danger almost everywhere’, and maybe that includes Christmas preparations, the difficult-to-buy-for relative, when to get the sprouts, whether the tree will lose its needles before the big day.

Both Russ and Ruby make the point that we just weren’t built to be constantly on the lookout for danger. As Ruby puts it in her no-nonsense style: ‘The problem these days as modern man is that when we perceive danger, adrenaline shoots into us but because we can’t kill a traffic warden or eat an estate agent, the juice never comes back down. We’re in a constant state of red light alert, like a car siren that drives you nuts.’

So that’s where we are, or at least some of us, some of the time. Next time we’ll think about how we can cool the engine a little, and take a bit of time out from the hectic panic.

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