It all happened on Monday. Tony (our Chief Canine Officer/the love of my life) and I were out for our morning walk around the tranquil streets of Bateau Bay (a small coastal suburb on the Central Coast of Australia, if you’re not from these parts).
I’d recently got up the courage to let Tony off his lead on a few of the bushy areas away from the road, so we were powering along (between sniff and wee stops of course…for Tony, not me).
As we turned a corner of the bush path a giant dog caught sight of Tony and decided it wanted to play, so it charged towards us with tremendous vigour. As you can imagine, Tony (part chihuahua, part moodle) didn’t see this as an opportunity for fun, rather imminent death. So naturally he turned around and legged it.
I quickly realised that Tony was in fight or flight mode – he was only thinking about survival and his only priority was getting the hell out of there. So I too started running, although at a mere snail’s pace compared to the hounds.
By the time I reached the end of the bush path the giant dog was casually wandering back to find his owner, but Tony was nowhere to be seen.
HELLO FIGHT OR FLIGHT MODE.
My mind started to go a million miles an hour – and obviously straight to all the worst-case scenarios. What if he was lying in a bush somewhere injured? What if he’d run off into the road and got run over? What if I never saw him again? I can feel the emotions re-emerging just thinking about it.
By this point I was in pure panic mode. I was aimlessly running in all four of the possible directions he could have gone, feebly calling his name while uncontrollably weeping. I just didn’t know what to do. Because I was completely in my emotional brain I couldn’t think of a clear action plan, so I was just going around in circles getting increasingly distraught by the minute.
Eventually I had a moment of clarity and decided I needed to get home, drag my husband out of bed and jump in the car to go in search of my best friend. This is when the adrenaline kicked in and I started to run.
I know the adrenaline was in play because I was able to run faster than I have in a very long time. I pity the poor people I passed on my way – their morning walks being disturbed by a panic-stricken English girl yelling at them about a little black dog while struggling to catch her breath and ugly crying.
As I reached the final few blocks a couple told me they had indeed seen a little black dog – he’d hung a right at the stop sign at the end of the road. “No way!” I exclaimed. “I think he’s going home!”
I walk-ran the last few hundred metres, also taking a right at the stop sign and then a left into my street. As I hobbled around the big bush out the front of our house to cross the finish line…there he was. My favourite furry friend was sat waiting for me at the front door!
What a clever boy! We’d been almost two kilometres from home on a relatively new walking route, but somehow he’d sniffed his way home
Although I was elated to see him, my brain wasn’t ready to catch up yet – it was still in fight or flight and panic mode. I broke down in more tears, now unable to catch my breath because of the pure emotion I was experiencing.
Tony was completely over it by this point. His fight or flight mode had served its purpose – it had got him to safety and now he was chill. But my silly evolved brain was still thinking about all the worst-case scenarios and what “could” have happened – so it was keeping my fight or flight mode alive and strong.
Eventually with some deep breathing (to communicate safety to my brain) I did manage to calm down, stop catastrophising and get back into rest and digest mode (the opposite of fight or flight) – which was further enhanced by spending the rest of the day cuddling the f*ck out of Tony and purchasing a GPS tracker for him!
So what’s in this story for you?
Although my experience was somewhat out of the ordinary (I hope), the way I responded wasn’t. We’re all responding to situations throughout our day in this exact same way, to varying degrees.
So while you may not feel physical panic (although I know a lot of people do, as anxiety levels are through the roof), your constant busyness, worrying and inability to switch off is still triggering fight or flight mode.
But unlike me in this situation, you’re not actually fighting or running – you’re mostly sat at your desk, running your business (which I guess means you are running?!) or trying to keep all your plates spinning – or all of the above!
So the processes triggered and hormones released (e.g. adrenalin) by your body in order to keep you safe are not being used. Which over time can cause issues such as low energy, digestive issues, hormonal imbalances, sickness, anxiety and depression.
It also means that you’re operating to some degree from your emotional brain, which (like me) can make it more difficult for you to think clearly, take proactive action and respond appropriately to the challenges that come your way.
You can use stress for good
I’d like to put it out there at this point that not all stress is bad. In fact, sometimes it genuinely is your key to survival (like it was for Tony). And it can even be your key to success – if you take control of it and use it to drive you forward, rather than hold you back.
The key is in how you interpret it. Let’s say, for example, that you’re feeling anxious because you’re about to stand up and pitch your business at a networking event. If you interpret the anxiety as bad, your brain will consider it a threat so your anxiety and fear will be supersized as your brain tries to protect you.
If however you interpret this same anxious feeling as good, and an opportunity for you to step outside of your comfort zone and grow, your brain will understand that you’re not in danger so it will allow you to harness the clarity and energy that comes with fight or flight mode without letting it bite you in the arse.
What you can do to use stress to your advantage
1. Know when stress is OK
The first step is to understand when fight or flight mode is appropriate in your life, and when it’s not. For example, another car cutting you up on your drive home from work or a heavy object falling from a shelf directly towards your head, require the stress response – because you need to react quickly and get out of danger’s way.
Worries about too many emails in your inbox or concerns about whether to choose the salad or schnitzel for lunch, would be great examples of triggering fight or flight mode unnecessarily. Although these are only thoughts, the brain sees them as “threats” and responds in the same physical way – because it doesn’t know the difference between real and perceived.
So make a list of all the times you generally experience stress throughout your day and categorise them as follows:
- Survival – when you need stress to physically protect you
- Performance – when you can use stress to help you get through a situation and grow
- Unnecessary – when stress is not appropriate and is simply being triggered as a result of thoughts and worries
I could bet quite a lot of money on the fact that the last category will probably be the biggest 🙂
2. Know when you’re starting to get stressed
So now you understand the different circumstances of stress, I’d like you to identify how stress shows up for you:
- Where do you feel it in your body? Perhaps your stomach, chest or throat
- What does stress feel like for you? Maybe tightness, tension, butterflies or a knot
- What common thoughts pop up when you’re stressed? I don’t know what to do, I can’t do this or I’m in over my head
3. Change the way you interpret stress
This information will form your stress trigger. So if, for example, when you’re stressed you get tightness in your chest and feelings of overwhelm – as soon as you start to experience any of these things it’s your trigger to stop for a moment and assess the situation (unless of course it’s a survival situation, in which case just let your instincts take the driver’s seat and get you to safety).
Most circumstances however will be “Performance” or “Unnecessary”, so take a deep breath and decide which category it falls under.
If it’s performance, tell yourself: “This is an opportunity and these feelings are helping me to embrace it and grow.”
If it’s unnecessary, tell yourself: “I’m safe, I can only do what I can do, and that’s perfectly good enough.”
4. Take action in this moment
Next, with both scenarios, focus on the task or situation at hand. Remind yourself that you can only ever take action in the moment and ask, “What one thing can I do right now that will have the biggest impact on myself and/or the situation?”
Commit to giving this thing your whole attention, and then once complete focus on the next thing that will have the biggest impact, and so on.
By concentrating on the moment it allows you to let go of the majority of thoughts driving the unhelpful stress response, because they’re usually associated with worrying about the past or trying to dictate the future, neither of which you can ever change or control. Remember:
You can only ever take action or change something in this moment.
Couple all this with some simple calming techniques (breathe, meditate, do something you love) and embracing opportunities to step outside your comfort zone and expand it, and you’ll be laughing in the face of stress in no time.