Life is full of paradoxes. The more you learn, the less you know; the more freedom you have, the more overwhelmed and paralyzed you feel by the possibilities. One of the most intriguing paradoxes is the paradox of survival. Our survival instincts, honed over millions of years of evolution, are designed to protect us from danger and ensure our survival. However, in the modern world, these survival instincts are actually killing us.
The fight or flight response, triggered by a perceived threat, can lead to a host of physical and mental health problems when activated chronically. In this article, we will examine how the survival instincts we inherited from our ancestors can now be killing us, and how meditation can help us manage this primal instinct better.
The Fight or Flight Response and Its Effects on Modern Life
The Physiology of Fight or Flight
I assume that you have heard of the flight or fight response, but I will explain it anyway.
The fight or flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. When you perceive a threat, your body releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare your body to either fight the threat or flee from it. Your heart rate increases, your muscles tense up, your breathing quickens, and your senses become sharper. This response is crucial for our survival as it enables us to react quickly in dangerous situations. If you have endured the film ‘Crank’ starring Jason Statham, then you get the idea (great film for background noise while vacuuming).
The Modern Day Triggers
But, in our backward and upside-down (and sometimes a little bit messed up) modern world, the fight or flight response is often triggered by non-physical threats, such as work stress, social conflicts, or financial worries. We have the same physiological reaction when we worry that we aren’t living the best life that other people are on Instagram as we had when being chased by a wild beast that could tear us apart, limb by limb.
Your body cannot differentiate between a physical threat, like a predator, and a psychological threat, like a deadline at work. Because of that, the fight or flight response is activated in situations where it is not necessary or helpful. This can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and a host of other health problems.
The Toll on Your Health
We all know that stress is one of the biggest killers. Chronic activation of the fight or flight response has been linked to a variety of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, weakened immune system, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. It can also lead to poor decision-making, strained relationships, and decreased quality of life. In short, your survival instincts, which are designed to protect you, can end up causing you harm.
Your central nervous system is the bridge between your brain and your body, and having all this panic juice swirling about for hours or days is just burning you out. So what do you do?
The Need for Better Management
It is clear that we need to find ways to better manage our fight or flight response in the modern world. While it is not possible to eliminate stress entirely from our lives (and some people’s main cause of stress is actually trying to eliminate stress from their lives), we can learn to manage it better and minimize its negative effects. One way, and in my biased opinion the best way to do this is through meditation.
The Paradox of Survival Instincts
The Drownproofing Metaphor
The Navy Seals have a training called ‘drownproofing’ that sounds like my worst nightmare.
In drownproofing, trainees’ hands and feet are bound, and they are dropped into a nine-foot deep pool. Their job is to survive for five minutes.
Most seals and people, in general, fail at this exercise because their instincts tell them to struggle to keep their heads above water. But, the more you struggle, the more likely you are to sink and drown.
Your fight-or-fight system, the same system that is designed to prolong your life, is flipped on. The hormones are being released, increasing your heart rate, releasing energy into your muscles, and turning off organs that it thinks it doesn’t need. All these responses are burning more energy and oxygen, the total opposite of what you need to survive. Your fight-or-flight response is killing you.
The trick to drownproofing is to let yourself sink to the bottom of the pool and then push yourself off to come back to the top for another breath. It is a counterintuitive lesson that teaches you to let go and relinquish control in the face of death. But this doesn’t just apply when your hands and feet are tied and are fighting for your life at the bottom of a pool; it applies to all of life itself.
Sometimes Doing Less Is More
This lesson can be extended to many aspects of our lives. Most people assume that the relationship between effort and reward is linear – the more effort you put in, the greater the reward. But that’s not always the case.
If you’re doing repetitive tasks, the relationship may be linear. For example, if you’re putting stamps on envelopes (because it’s your wedding and apparently sending an iCal invite isn’t romantic) then the amount of time you put in, is equal to the number of envelopes you stamp.
But for more complex, emotionally or psychologically demanding activities, the relationship is often on a diminishing returns curve. Or, in other words, the more effort you put in, the less you get out of it.
Remember that girl or guy or they that you had a crush on at school? Remember how hard you tried to impress them, you spent time choosing what to wear, thinking about what fragrance they liked, and practicing what to say to them. You carved time out of your confused pubescent life to be the perfect mate for this person. And then you finally get to speak to them, and no matter how much you practiced, and how much you tell yourself to play it cool, you just end up a fumbling pile of nerves that sounds like you’re an audio file still buffering. More effort, less result.
Meditation as a Tool to Manage Survival Instincts
Meditation, like mindfulness meditation, can be a powerful tool to manage our survival instincts. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment so you can figure the situation out for what it is, and not what you expect it should be. It teaches us to observe our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. This can help you become more aware of the fight or flight response and its triggers, so you can respond to stressors more consciously rather than with a knee-jerk reaction.
More mindful people are more likely to figure out the drownproofing exercise. Their instincts are telling them to kick like mad and get their head above the water so they can breathe. But, a mindful person figures that kicking like crazy is just going to burn more oxygen, so the right and counterintuitive thing to do is sink. Sink so you can get to the bottom and gently push to the surface for your next breath.
Not Just In The Pool
We do the same thing in our everyday lives, with work and our relationships. When things get bad, we try to rush in a do as much as we can to fix it. If relationships are falling apart we overcompensate and make it worse, when we think things are getting worse at work, we work longer hours and constantly think about the problems until we burn out.
They Are Just Signs
Stress and fear are just signs. They are saying to you ‘Hey, that thing that’s happening over there could be dangerous. You might want to do something about it.’
Meditation gives you a choice. It gives you the choice to react because there actually is a wild beast that wants to tear you from limb to limb, or it gives you a chance to respond and sink to the bottom of the pool before you push yourself up again.
In a world full of constant stressors, it is more important than ever to manage our survival instincts effectively. While the fight or flight response actually has a purpose for our survival, its chronic activation can lead to a host of physical and mental health problems. By becoming more aware of our body’s reactions to stress and learning to respond more consciously, we can minimize the negative effects of chronic stress and improve our overall well-being.
Meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, is a powerful tool that can help you achieve this way of living. By practicing mindfulness regularly, you can increase your self-awareness, and manage your fight or flight response better. This will not only improve your mental health but also your relationships, decision-making, and overall quality of life.
Ultimately, managing your survival instincts is about taking control of your life. It is about deciding to let go of things that are beyond your control and focusing on what you can control. It is about accepting that sometimes people will not like us, that sometimes we will not feel confident, and that sometimes we will not be happy. And that is okay. It is the only way to get back to the surface, breathe, and do it again.