What does a cave lion and a traffic jam have in common

lion attack

Slow down, you’re moving too fast,
You’ve got to make one moment last.
Just, kicking down the cobblestones,
Looking for fun and feeling groovy.

1 point if you can name the artist. Another if you can name the song, and a bonus point if you can give us the year.

But actually, none of that matters. It’s the sentiment that does. So who should really be getting the points are those that can, hand on heart, say that they put the first two lines of that verse into action today.

And what about yesterday? And the day before.

Didn’t think so.

But you know, you really should. And not just because it’s preferable to feel groovy rather than stressed, but because it allows you to be better at what you’re doing.

To illustrate my point, we should first take a look at what stress is and why it’s useful (yes, it’s useful)…

A stressful situation triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes, e.g. the heart pounds, the breath quickens, muscles tense etc. This is also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response because it evolved as a survival mechanism to enable us (and other mammals) to react quickly to life-threatening situations. Besides helping us run away, this type of acute stress also boosts the immune response for three to five days (presumably to help us heal after the lion takes a swipe at us). (More on this from Harvard Health here)

However, it’s not just finding yourself in the path of a cave lion that triggers stress. In a modern day setting, it can be traffic jams, ongoing uncertainty over your job, the hectic commute, or a tricky domestic situation.

Recognise any of these scenarios?

What happens to your nervous system when in ‘fight or flight’ mode is the interesting bit. At the first sign of a threat, the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, triggering the ‘fight or flight’ response and providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers.

Awesome, thanks sympathetic nervous system – you got me through a tight deadline!

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, acts like a brake. It promotes the ‘rest and digest’ response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.

But what if the parasympathetic nervous system is never put in gear? What if you’re struggling from pillar to post, meeting to deadline, constantly fire-fighting and never taking stock?

Well, this is when you may start to self-medicate with chocolate chip cookies. In all seriousness, elevated cortisol levels during chronic low-level stress increases the appetite, since your body is trying to obtain extra energy. More than that, your immune response can also become compromised and there are a number of studies to show slower wound healing and sluggish production of antibodies in stressed individuals.

And as anyone who’s ever been ill can tell you: You’re better at your job when you’re not.

Jo Furnival is Senior Account Manager at All about the Idea, an ancient philosophy graduate and regular yoga practitioner. “An enquiring mind”, “pathological attention to detail” and “a pain in my a*** ” are all terms used to describe her. 

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