Picture this. You are in a client meeting and everything is running smoothly. The client unexpectedly offers an objection you are unprepared for, and all of the sudden your heart starts racing, you feel jittery, you are breathing faster, and overall you just feel nervous. Ever happened to you? This response, which is entirely normal, is reflective of our “flight or fight” response and, more scientifically, our two polar nervous systems, which often work against one another to obtain a state of homeostasis, or equilibrium. When we experience this response, it is generally as a reaction to a stressor—real or imagined, big or small, and it is involuntary.1 Researchers can trace this state back to when we were primitive beings; during this time, we needed a reaction to ensure survival. A stressor occurs, and our brain sends a signal to the amygdala and hypothalamus.2 Once the amygdala and hypothalamus are activated, the pituitary gland secretes ACTH, or the adrenocorticotropic hormone which releases certain neurotransmitters (i.e. adrenaline, cortisol) to elicit our intent to react to stressors in our environment.3 The end result is the determination whether to fight the stressor or run from it (flight).
Now, flip the picture. Have you ever eaten a big meal (think Thanksgiving) and felt tired afterwards? Or, more seriously, how about a big client lunch that left you in front of the client felling tired and moving slowly? These are examples of the “rest and digest” response, or the parasympathetic nervous system.(1) When we experience this state, it is generally geared towards recovery and regeneration.(2) How these two complement each other is important to understand. The “fight or flight” response serves to activate our bodies for action, and the “rest and digest” response activates our bodies to recover and rejuvenate us for future performances.1 While the “fight or flight” response is generally considered to be more involuntary, we have greater control over the “rest and digest” response by simply managing our breathing (i.e. diaphragmatic breathing), listening to music, or by even reading a book.
One final scenario. Let’s say I put a yellow cup in front of you and gave you a pair of glasses with blue color lenses in them, such that everything you saw out of them was blue. What color is the cup? The answer is…yellow. The color of the cup never changes; however, what does change is how you view the cup due to the lenses you are wearing. The obvious metaphor is that what you are experiencing doesn’t officiate what you are. There are several physical sensations that we experience once the “fight or flight” response is initiated, including: increased heart rate, increased perspiration, dilated pupils, tunnel vision, dry mouth, slowed digestion, and jitteriness.(3) However, it is important to realize that simply because you are experiencing these symptoms does not mean you are an anxious or overly excited person. Rather, these symptoms in the presence of a stressor are very normal and mainly indicate that you are ready to perform. If you can recognize that, then you can harness that energy to perform better. Think about the last time you felt excited about something. Did any of the fight or flight symptoms occur? Did it freak you out? If so, it shouldn’t. These reactions are normal and with the right awareness can be useful to you just as they were useful to our ancestors for survival.
By taking time to be more self-aware and self-regulate ourselves, we can begin to understand what our bodies are divulging to us. It all depends on how we choose to interpret our body’s physical reactions. So the next time you experience the “flight or fight” response, whether you’re presenting at a meeting, throwing a sales pitch to a new audience, or simply doing something for the first time, just remember, it is your body telling you that you are ready and excited to perform. Or if you ever experience an unwanted “rest and digest” response, try listening to some music, breathing deeply, or reading an interesting book to wake your body back up. Either way, understanding the cues your body sends you will help you identify the necessary steps to perform at your best. In summary, for both responses, it all comes down to re-centering yourself and your perspective.
For more information on how interpret your body’s signals more effectively, please feel free to reach out to HigherEchelon.
- 1. Klein, Sara. “Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepinephrine: The Three Major Stress Hormones, Explained.” Hufflington Post. April 19, 2014
- 2. Cannon, Walter (1932). Wisdom of the Body. United States: W.W. Norton & Company.
- 3. Olpin, Michael. “The Science of Stress”. Weber State University.