Right. Like oxygen is going to unbend your car, or erase the sight of your least attractive undies (it was laundry day, okay) from the poor other commuters memory. Really, take a deep breath? That's all you’ve got?
Well, it turns out there might just be something to it. See, when we take a big, deep, breath we physically stimulate something called the Vegas Nerve.
The Vegas nerve is responsible for a whole lot of stuff, but best of all it makes a lovely brain chemical called acetylcholine. It sounds a bit like adrenaline? If adrenaline is our feisty heroine, then acetylcholine is its cruisy hippie sister. This sandal wearing brain chemical is responsible for triggering the ‘rest and digest’ system, which using big fancy words is the parasympathetic nervous system.
Most of us have heard of the body's ‘Fight or flight’ response. Exposed to a threat our brain activates the sympathetic nervous system triggering physical reactions, all designed to protect us from danger. We become more aroused (no, not like that), our breath becomes more shallow, our digestions slows and we are poised; ready to either run away or defend ourselves.
So let's do a little role play. You’re a cavewoman going about your business, sweeping the cave with the latest model grass broom. The kids are arguing over who is winning their game of of dinosaurs and ladders and your very attractive, if a little smelly significant cave-other is relaxing listening to a rock band (okay I’ll stop). The peace is shattered when a sabre tooth tiger growls just outside the cave entrance. Significant cave-other grabs his spear, races to the entrance and begins to attack. The kids cower behind you, which given you are are armed with only a broom shows remarkable faith.
Cue your fight and flight response: You are alert, your body is preparing to run or fight. Non essentials are turned off, you are in ultimate survival mode. So, what do you do?
Well - you sure as hell don’t get out your new ochre paints and start sketching out that cave painting you have been meaning to start in the living room. In fact anything creative is unlikely to be a priority.
Okay, so the risk of a tiger attack is relatively low for most of us reading this, so lets roll the history books forward.
You’ve had a busy day. The house is a mess, the kids are squabbling. You have an hour to write before you need to whip up a nutritious meal that everyone might actually eat, using only a sad selection of vegetables lamenting in the bottom of your crisper and some kind of ice encrusted object you dug out from the back of the freezer. Now remember, you only have 58 minutes left to write.
A deadline is looming from your day job and your critique partner is patiently waiting for feedback on a story due Monday. And the cat just vomited on the rug next to your desk. Nice.
Remember you have limited time, 57 minutes now, so ignore it all and….. Go.
Go on. Be creative. Now. I mean it. You only have 56 mins left. 55.
Yes. We have a problem. And no. It’s not just you.
The problem with the fight and flight system is that it has served us incredibly well for millions of years, but more recently our need to defend ourselves against sabre tooth tiger attacks are pretty rare.
We do however need to worry about deadlines, unpaid bills, relationship stress, tax, job interviews, traffic, arguments, angry clients… you get the picture.
And if you, like myself suffer from anxiety, well, a knock at the door, an invitation stuck on the fridge, even the phone ringing can generate worry.
As sophisticated as the human body is, it’s not so good at telling the difference between the stress of a job interview and the stress of a huge beast with very sharp teeth. So, just in case, it activates ‘fight or flight’. Better to be safe than sorry.
Now, this isn’t true for everyone. Some people seem to manage stress very well. Perhaps they found their owners manual (please oh please let me borrow it next). Others, us anxious types, we spend a lot of time in low or moderate level stress, so much so that we come to know that level of arousal as normal. Now, this can have great benefits. Perhaps we are always on time, fastidiously tidy or hyper vigilant about our work. (Just saying, I’m none of those things and quite frankly, I think I got stooged).
And so what? Is it really a problem? Well, medical evidence now suggests there’s significant health problems for our bodies remaining in states of stress over long periods of time. Just like the engine damage sustained when you drive a car really fast in first gear over a long distance, our bodies are not meant to experience long term stress . Instead of infrequent bursts of adrenaline that are then settled by our friend the hippie Acetylcholine, the body is now operating day to day with our fight or flight turned on. Our switch is stuck.
Long term stress brings an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, raised blood pressure, vulnerablity to infections, allergies and autoimmune diseases, diabetes and obesity.
All of this is quite serious, but how does this affect our stressed out author?
Well some clever scientists hooked people up to a particularly sexy machine and triggered their fight and flight response and measured fast brain waves called betas. It’s generally accepted that there are five varying speeds of brainwaves, each with a purpose in helping us through challenges in life. When the brainwaves of people being creative are measured they show slower frequency alpha and theta waves, which incidentally are also shared by the ‘rest and digest’ mode. Meaning? Your brain struggles to be creative while experiencing the faster beta waves of the fight or flight state.
So, is there an answer? What can we do?
Generally, unless you decide to become a monk and move to the side of a Tibetan mountain, 21st century stressors are here to stay. It is unlikely within our power to control external stress, and any self help book that suggests the solution is avoiding stress is perhaps most useful aimed at the wall.
What we can do is learn how to ‘unstick’ our fight and flight switch and engage our perhaps under recognised ’rest and digest’ system. And your choices here are varied and very personal.
Each of these are perhaps a blog post in their own right, but here briefly are a few personal helpful techniques :
Breathing, as mentioned at earlier, is a quick and easily available method to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. It’s socially acceptable to go out for a quick cigarette so why not go spend 2 or 3 minutes breathing deeply outside, in the bathroom or even in a chair with a post it note stuck on your head advising you are unavailable. Now any time out with quiet breaths is going to help, but for maximum effect we are looking for the body to trigger the relaxation response. Further information can be found here. www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response
Meditation is not just for people who eat a lot of beans. I mean it. I’m a pretty recent convert. I spent years telling anyone when the topic of meditation came up that I couldn’t do it because my mind was ’too busy’. Like it was special or perhaps particularly broken. The truth was my mind was busy, me and everyone else in the world, and actually, I just hadn’t found the method that worked best for me as yet. Someone doesn't pick up a hardcore horror book and put it down declaring they don’t like reading. They just perhaps haven’t found the genre they like. Well much the same, I didn't understand there were quite different types of meditation.
Here is a basic list as a starting point
I happened upon the phone app One Giant Mind (http://www.1giantmind.org) in January this year, and I will be forever grateful to the team who created it. Vedic meditation has been a game changer for me. I have noticed the difference in my writing, my heath and my approach to life.
For an interesting view on Creativity and Meditation, check out MRWG’s own Vanaessa Carnevale’s podcast interview with Emily Fletcher who explains some of the neuroscience around meditation and stress.
I have been taking my five year old daughter to yoga to help with some attention, focus and sensory issues. We are lucky to have a brilliant teacher who is so patient (must be all that relaxation). She teaches special child poses, some which are fun, and some which are just plain cruel (Cleverly dressing up planking as a snake pose - who makes a mother of three with no core strength plank!) . My absolute favourite is the Volcano which we have employed at home, and not just with the kids. If I’m frustrated, angry or even sluggish this pose is amazing. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=II8HaKOSSkE)
A short burst of exercise, just enough to make you breath a little harder can help our bodies use up the adrenaline, mimicking the ‘fight or flight’ experience your body is all geared up for. The body is primed and ready for action, you can’t expect it to sit there, all stressed out and no tiger to maim. Essentially, use up the chemicals so that the the body can enter the next import phase - relaxation.
I kind of feel like I should take cover before I say this. I don’t want to say it, it almost causes me physical pain, but the science doesn’t lie. Okay, here goes… Read it fast, like ripping off a bandaid.
Caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline. And adrenaline is the poster boy for the ‘Flight or Fight’ response - the thing we are trying to turn off…
There I said it. I love coffee. A lot. Sorry.
None of theses things are groundbreaking, and they are by no means the end of the list. If you aren’t already doing some of them, I imagine you have at least tried or considered them. Everyone's needs and triggers are different, keep experimenting and exploring what makes a difference in your life.
And next time you sit down to write, and the words won’t come; be kind to yourself. Your body is just trying to protect you from a tiger attack.
A boring but important note: I am not a psychologist and everything you have read here is of my own personal experience and research. I might have made light of it in the blog but anxiety is a very real and can be incredibly debilitating. If you are struggling with anxiety please tell someone – a friend, your GP, or one of the many support services available in the community.
Beyond Blue https://www.beyondblue.org.au 1300 22 4636 is a helpful information portal and a great place to start.