Is there a saber-tooth tiger in the room?
My jaw is clenched, my hands are clenched, every muscle in my body feels tight, and my mind is in overdrive. Is there a saber-tooth tiger in the room? Not under the bed, behind the curtains, or anywhere else in the room. The truth is, I am safe, at home, in my room. What is happening? I am experiencing a stress response to events that occurred earlier in the day. That stress response that should have ended hours ago!
Stress can be useful in hazardous situations, but prolonged stress can contribute to health concerns. Everyone is different, but stress may
- Increase heart rate, and breathing, to pump blood faster and provide more oxygen which may result in high blood pressure and chest pains
- Stop digestion, to divert blood to large muscles, affecting appetite and elimination
- Release extra sugar and insulin into the blood stream, to increase energy, possibly resulting in low blood sugar later
- Send stress messages to muscles, to prepare them to fly or fight which can result in fatigue and muscle stiffness
Stress may lead to a need for professional medical or mental health assistance. Call your doctor(s) for help when you need it.
The saber-tooth tiger references a premise about the human stress response. The fight or flight syndrome was described by Walter B. Cannon at Harvard Medical School back in the 1920’s. The fight or flight syndrome presumed that during the Ice Age, humans developed a finely tuned physiological set meant to save their lives under threat. What threats existed back then? Large predators with 12” teeth! In today’s culture, stress seems to be around every corner, and so many humans permanently live in a stress response. But our bodies were meant to be stressed only briefly for life saving, then return to the life promoting relaxation response.
According to University of Texas at Austin, Counselling and Mental Health Center, “Even though the fight or flight response is automatic, it isn’t always accurate. In fact most of the time when the fight or flight response is triggered it is a false alarm – there is no threat to survival. The part of the brain the initiates the automatic part of the fight or flight response, the amygdala, can’t distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat.”
What I suggest is a form of mindfulness. Notice when you are experiencing a stress response. Early signs of stress, according to the American Psychological Association, can include
- Headaches, muscle tension, neck or back pain
- Upset stomach
- Dry mouth
- Chest pains, rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Loss of appetite or overeating “comfort foods”
When you notice symptoms of the stress response consider if there is some form or another of a saber-tooth tiger threatening you. If there is, fight, run, or get help – quickly! If there isn’t, consider mindfully shifting into relaxation. Relaxation can enhance your health by
- Decreasing muscle tension
- Decreasing oxygen consumption
- Improving oxygen availability
- Decreasing metabolism: heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure
When I realized there was no saber tooth tiger in my room, and no other immediate cause for stress, it was time for relaxation strategies. My personal favorites include deep breathing, guided imagery, and the relaxation response. For a simple deep breathing exercise, try this.
- Exhale fully
- Inhale – sense or feel your abdomen rise.
- Now exhale again –
- And inhale slowly and deeply
- Then exhale slowly and completely.
- Repeat as often as you can.
For another relaxation strategy, try Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response technique. In this video shared by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Herbert Benson himself guides you through the steps of the Relaxation Response.
Let me know what works for you. And on the worst of days, remember that actual saber-tooth tigers became extinct at least 10,000 years ago. Phew! You can cross them off your lists of worries.