Much of our present-day experience is the result of characteristics that began in the times of the earliest humans. One of those is our response in times of extraordinary stress.
In caveman times,the biggest dangers came from short-term threats, like an attack from a wild animal. That didn’t leave much time for careful consideration of options; it required an instantaneous fight-or-flight decision.
To help in that process, the caveman’s body instantly clicked into high-alert mode, releasing a surge of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones accelerate the heart rate and enhance the brain’s use of glucose, among other effects, which helped encourage the kind of action that was required and also the abilities that made it possible.
Because such a reaction increases the rate at which the heart pumps nutrient-rich blood to muscles, arms and legs, a stressed caveman could run faster and jump higher than normal. Capillaries shut down, which decreases the level of blood flowing right under the skin and decreases the danger of a surface wound.
The brain can focus most intensely on the danger at hand, with all nonessential functions shut down. The eyes dilate to increase visual acuity. All this can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Our stress nowadays is different. Sometimes those hormones aren’t our friends.
We think of the stress the cavemen felt as being rare events. Presumably if you’re attacked by wild animals several times a week, at some point your fight-or-flight decision might be the wrong one and you won’t get any more chances.
Our day-to-day stresses are more mundane, though no less difficult to deal with, as anyone concerned about their job prospects can attest.
What’s more, sometimes our bodies aren’t great at handling stress. If our bodies are too quick to release hormones, they can have negative health effects over time.
A fight-or-flight response isn’t so useful when the boss calls you into his office or your spouse says “we need to talk,” since neither of those options is practical for such situations.
Nevertheless, at times of extraordinary stress, we still react much like the cavemen, and benefit from the same increased ability to do things we otherwise couldn’t.
Everyone’s heard stories about people who lift up heavy objects to rescue loved ones trapped underneath, or saw time appear to slow down as they struggled to get out of a dangerous situation.
That’s all thanks to our ancestors, and more specifically their bodies, for developing a response to extreme stress that has carried over to the present day.
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