Have you wondered why we’re so stressed when we aren’t foraging for food or being attacked by lions? I have. Last I checked, my cortisol levels were high all day, which isn’t healthy. Large amounts of cortisol are released in the body in response to stress. So why is my body even experiencing a stress response? My life doesn’t seem threatened.
It turns out we are socially interdependent mammals. This means God created us to live in groups and our survival depends on others in community. We’re not meant to live as lone wolves. For example, I would’ve died in childbirth if it weren’t for medical professionals. Our bodies are fully aware of this dependence and interpret a breakdown in relationship as a life or death threat. When we don’t feel seen, heard or understood in a relationship, we attempt to resolve it with communication and if that fails, our stress response engages. The stress response puts you in a state of fight, flight or freeze. Our body’s routine functions get deprioritized and all our energy goes to helping us survive. Digestion, reproduction – even frontal lobe function – is not important if you’re running for your life, right?
The trouble is, if we get stuck in this state, our bodily processes are never functioning full steam ahead. It’s no way to live. The struggle isn’t just physical either. Fear scrambles our brains. If you’ve ever wondered what’s going on with teenagers, their amygdala is developing, which means they slip into stress response easily. I have teenagers and watch them panic, responding with big emotions or desperate words/actions. In a relationship scenario, fighting looks like raising your voice, fleeing looks like storming out of the room, and freezing is falling silent and immobile. I let them know I’m not a lion on the hunt and once their frontal lobe is back online, they get a chance to choose their response.
So how do we get out of the stress response?
First, notice our feelings. We may feel panic, desperation, paralysis and more during a stress response. Those feelings provide us the information that we’re stressed so we can do something about it. God created us with two sources of information: intellect and feelings. Both tell us what we need to know to navigate life. If we refuse to use one, we limp through life like a person who doesn’t want to use both their God-given feet.
Second, we do something to tell our bodies we’re safe. This can be physical activity, laughing, crying, a positive social interaction, physical touch and breathing.* Slowing and deepening our breath is one thing that’s always available to help our bodies calm down.
It’s okay to get stressed by people you love and be upset by a lack of connection. Our humanity notices what’s not right in our community and wants to put it right. While we may not be able to put external things right, God built into us the ability to move in and out of stress to live life abundantly. She’s given us tools to get back to what we’re capable of when we aren’t stressing: enjoying ourselves, thoughtfully listening to people, and finding creative solutions to problems. I’m deeply grateful She’s provided us the ability to not only cope, but thrive.
*ideas taken from Burnout: the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski