We have many parts of our body that run automatically. We don’t have to think about digesting food, raising or lowering the temperature of our body, keeping our heart beating, or breathing. There are millions of processes that run automatically. The part of our mind that automatically runs our body functions is called the Autonomic Nervous System. There are two parts to the Autonomic Nervous System: one is the Stress Response and the other is the Relaxation Response.
What is this Stress Response like? Think of a deer calmly grazing in a beautiful forest. When the deer sees a Mountain Lion – its Stress Response gets activated. This is also called, the fight or flight response. When the Stress Response gets turned on – the deer’s body is altered by chemicals. The Adrenal Glands prepare the deer’s body to mobilize lots of energy. If the Mountain Lion begins to the approach the deer, the deer has the energy to run away. If the deer is able to escape the Mountain Lion and all is well, then perhaps 30 minutes later, the deer returns to calmly grazing.
We also have a Freeze Response. When the deer recognizes that there is no way to escape, it just freezes – like a deer in headlights.
This is short-term stress. All organisms are designed to handle short-term stress. Human beings have a Stress Response also known as a fight, flight, or freeze response. We also have a Relaxation Response. Our Stress Response enables us to handle threats from bears or other challenges to our survival.
Dr. Joe Dispenza writes that one thing that separates humans from animals is that we can turn on our Stress Response by simply having a thought. It is also true that the thought that turns on our fight or flight response does not have to have anything to do with what is happening right now. I can think about a test in three days and feel nervous. If I think about my mom yelling at me last week, I feel angry. Events from the past affect how I feel now. These memories can activate my Stress Response. When I worry and feel fear about my playing in my soccer game next Saturday, the same chemicals are released in my body as when I am being chased by a Mountain Lion.
When this happens over and over again, I learn to be afraid or angry when something happens. My mom is very critical when I am learning to clean the kitchen as a child. My mind then associates someone judging my work with fear. The more my mother criticizes me when I work, the more I make the connection. I take a test in Middle School, forehead sweating and hands shaking. My thoughts are racing, and I am confused. Earlier, I did my homework and studied for my test. But when I sit and begin to take my test, I feel fear. I fail my test. This is how our subconscious mind works. It is automatic. Ninety-five percent of our thinking is subconscious. Only five percent of our thinking is conscious thinking, meaning thinking of which I am aware.
During the test, I am nervous. It is not helpful to experience stress when there is no crisis here and now. Although there is no danger near me, I can experience the Stress Response for a long time. This fight or flight response is using up important energy in my body by sending it to my muscles as if I had to run from a lion. Yet there is no lion. This energy is needed for important tasks, like digesting my food or fighting off disease.
When my Stress Response runs too long, I feel the emotions fear, anger, envy or hate. I have pain in my body. I may feel sad, depressed, and hopeless. My mind is then full of criticism and worry. My body releases powerful hormones for stress and survival, because I am afraid I will once again experience a painful memory. I also may be anticipating danger, so my body automatically produces chemicals which lead to thoughts about danger and survival.
The good news is that the body can only be in one state at a time – either the Stress Response or the Relaxation Response. During the Stress Response, our body breathes faster and shallow. Our muscles tense. We grip our pencils too tightly when taking a test. Our body releases acid in our stomach to break down our food for energy. We may be doubled over in pain, as a result. We may sweat and our glasses may fog up, even though the room is cool. These are signs of my Stress Response being turned on. Because I am taking a test, this is a problem. My body is preparing for physical danger. My mind and body are not prepared for the subtle work of taking a test.
The Relaxation Response is ideal for test taking. My muscles are relaxed. My eyes are focused on the test question. I am breathing slowly and deeply. How do I learn to turn on the Relaxation Response? Using Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), you can learn to relax. I recommend doing the PMR exercises three times a day. Over time, you will learn how to relax. Please watch my video on Progressive Muscle Relaxation and learn to relax.