Wildfires are an expression of Nature’s “fight or flight” response. However, when the flames have been quelled, the job of growth and repair begins almost immediately.
For people, some of whom may still be experiencing ongoing anxiety as a result of the recent wildfires, in addition to the threat to life they pose, the act of being temporarily or permanently separated from one’s home and community can prolong the experience of stress.
Sustained exposure to stress carries a very high biological cost. While stress is a physiological event designed to keep us safe in the presence of a threat, it is intended to be a temporary state and not to be activated for prolonged periods.
One of the greatest relievers of stress is known to be information, so what follows is a simple explanation of the stress response that may help you to manage any current or future experiences of anxiety.
POST-TRAUMA GROWTH & REPAIR VS. PROLONGED STATE OF STRESS
Every system in our body is designed to keep us safe in our environment and it is our nervous system that mediates between the perception of environmental threat (e.g., a drop in temperature) and the generation of a physical response (e.g., shivering). During normal activities, a subdivision of the nervous system called the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS), or “rest and digest” mechanism, regulates our body systems and fosters growth and repair.
When a critical threat is detected, however, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), or “fight or flight” mechanism, a primitive system designed to be used in the event of an attack by a predator, is activated causing a body-wide reaction. Adrenaline is released, which raises our heart rate; sugar is released into the bloodstream to provide instant energy; blood is diverted to our muscles increasing muscle tension; and all non-essential activities are switched off. These include our immune system and digestion, which explains the stomach discomfort often associated with stress.
Inflammation is also produced as a pre-emptive strike against a potential flesh wound. These processes are useful when we need to mobilize ourselves to run or fight and served all of us well in the initial stages of the recent fires when action needed to be taken to fight or to evacuate. However, when the immediate threat has passed, these processes are unhelpful and potentially very damaging.
The constant release of adrenaline can lead to adrenal exhaustion. The sugar left unused in the bloodstream has a corrosive effect on blood vessels and organs and can lead to diabetic changes. The inflammatory chemicals can irritate our own body tissues leading to joint pain, and the digestive system shut-down leads to gastrointestinal discomfort. Another response to threat can involve a “freeze” state. This system is a remnant of our reptilian ancestry that can leave us feeling isolated and powerless.
REGULATING STRESS RESPONSE
The ability to remain in a prolonged state of stress is unique to humans who possess the intellectual capacity to ruminate on past experiences and extrapolate to the future. In order to protect our future health, we need to learn how to regulate our stress responses in order to return to the “restore and repair” state mediated by the PSNS. So how do we do this?
Breathing techniques. Shallow breathing is a feature of SNS activity. Practicing deep, steady abdominal breathing techniques that allow the abdomen to expand during the inhale, serves to increase oxygenation, allowing the heart rate to slow. Additionally, the movement of the diaphragm helps to stimulate the primary nerve of the PSNS (the Vagus nerve) and facilitates digestive processes.
Mindfulness. When thoughts turn to past events or we look ahead to potential challenges, the SNS will tend to activate. Bringing oneself to the present moment and asking, “Is there an imminent threat to my survival right now?” can be useful to retrain the SNS to respond proportionately to actual, rather than perceived threat.
Seek Help. Social engagement is a great reliever of stress so connecting with friends, family, and community is an essential part of stress management. We are blessed in this local area with a wide range of experienced practitioners who can help with the physical, emotional, nutritional, and artistic components of healing, so reach out to this wider community, too.
The quietness that hangs in the air over the burned areas is a sign that Nature is now in Parasympathetic mode—the only state in which healing can occur. As we take a lesson from Nature and we, too, begin to heal from recent events, recognize that it is only from a calm inner state that our own green shoots can begin to emerge.
Jennie Morton, BSc (Hons) Osteopathy, MS Psychology, recently moved to Topanga and has offices in Topanga and West Hollywood. She is Author of “The Authentic Performer: Wearing a Mask & the Effect on Health” & “The Embodied Performer: A Guide to Optimal Performance; International speaker & founder of www.healthyperformers.com; Board member for the Performing Arts Medicine Association; Honorary Lecturer for the MSc Performing Arts Medicine, UCL Division of Surgery & Interventional Science; as well as a Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional. She is also the Wellness Professor at The Colburn School; and a Board member for the Dance Resource Center, LA.
By Jennie Morton, BSc (Hons) Osteopathy, MS Psychology