Stress Management and Running From Tigers

Office-dwellers of New York City, I have a some questions for you. Just to humor me, please read them over and make a mental selection of your answers. Here we go:

  • What is more frightening: running from a tiger or making a presentation in front of co-workers / clients?

  • What is more intimidating: battling a predator for food or clamoring against another commuter for the last seat on a rush-hour subway car?

  • What requires more focus: escaping a fire or escaping a last-minute Friday 5pm assignment?

The choices seem obvious, right? Well... not quite, at least from a physical standpoint. Believe it or not, since all of these scenarios are stress-worthy by today’s standards, you’re likely to experience a pounding heart, sweaty brow, hands that get cold and clammy, and tense muscles as much from fighting for that rush-hour subway seat as you are from running from a tiger (albeit maybe not to the exact same intensity).

Of course, these physical reactions were critical to the survival of our species. Our ancestors actually did face physical and environmental threats, each of which triggered an appropriate, biological “fight-or-flight” response. According to Kansas State’s Counseling Services, the fight-or-flight symptoms of our ancestors would last 20-30 minutes, or long enough to ensure our their safety, followed by a recovery period of two or three hours to slow down and let the body’s relaxation response settle in.

In today’s world, especially for those of us who call the big apple home and spend the bulk of our waking hours in an office environment, very few of us face the fear of imminent physical danger. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped our bodies from reacting as if we did. And this reaction - this super-stimulated, heart-pounding fight-or-flight response - happens between 50 to 200 times per day for most of us. We’re not always reacting with the intensity of someone escaping a fire or running from a vicious predator, but we do react (and we do it a lot). Herein lies our problem.

These triggers that our bodies have learned to interpret as stress, with repetition, manifest themselves as headaches, ulcers, insomnia, extreme fatigue, high blood pressure, tight shoulders, sore necks etc. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that (not only do we have 50 to 200 instances of these fight-or-flight responses daily but) we often lack the two to three hours of slowing down and relaxation (i.e., no emails, calls, exams, assignments) that our ancestors benefited from. Eliminating this recovery period means that tension and stress just compound day after day, without the opportunity to be released.

If you’re thinking, “thanks, Ashley, for shedding light on a problem that I see no way to avoid,” I hope that you continue reading just a little longer. I cannot have you reassigned from that demanding project or secure you a seat on the subway for your Monday morning commute, but I can offer a few tactics for improving your responses to these triggers. This fight-or-flight reflex doesn’t have to be automatic for these (in the grand scheme of things) little daily stressors. You can learn how to train your body and mind to respond accordingly, to relax more and to fight less.

So how does one invoke the relaxation response? Let’s backtrack for a quick second to mention what the relaxation response is and where it comes from. Per Harvard Health Publications, the relaxation response is “a state of profound rest that can be elicited in many ways, including meditation, yoga and progressive muscle relaxation.” Techniques to elicit this type of response were first developed in the 1970s by Harvard Medical School cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson, who focused heavily on the use of deep breathing to in relaxation methods.

In truth, one of the simplest and most sure fire ways to begin to slow down and intercept that fight-or-flight reflex is to take some big, deep breaths - also known as diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, belly breathing and paced respiration. Deep belly breathing encourages a more complete oxygen exchange as more air fills the lower segment of the lungs, helping to slow the heartbeat, stabilize blood pressure and remind you that, in fact, you're not running from a tiger (i.e. things will all be ok!).

Other methods to invoke the relaxation response recommended by Harvard Medical School include progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, repetitive prayer or guided imagery. The same formula may not work for all individuals, but no matter which method you choose to help you calm down, the addition of diaphragmatic breathing into the equation is bound to help.

If you’ve made it this far and you’re still feeling a little anxious then I encourage you to take some action right now. Give yourself a few minutes. Plug your headphones in and head on over to for a quick 2, 5 or 10 minute guided meditation. In just a few minutes, they'll have you taking bigger inhalations and on your way to living a less-stressed life.

In good health,