When my cortisol levels are elevated, I can actually feel my heart pumping harder. It physically hurts.
I frequently find myself in this halfway position of putting my hand over my heart and grasping the side of my neck. It is as if I can feel my heart pounding its way up my throat and I am trying to hold it in. I feel the panic swelling and I attempt to hold myself comfortingly.
My breathing gets shallow. I am on the verge of tears. I can’t focus. I am suffocating. The room, even my own clothes feel like a boa constrictor trying to swallow me.
Our primal mechanism of fight or flight is frequently associated with being in a state of stress.
I once heard stress described as the point of indecision –not knowing whether to fight or flee. It is, then, that indecision --not knowing which course of action to take-- that produces what we call 'stress.'
Piqued adrenaline gets you breathing faster, your heart pounding, your muscles tense –ready to fight or flee. Heightened norepinephrine makes you feel awake and intently focused on the threat. But, if you don’t fight or flee and, thus, quickly resolve the anxiety, the third stress hormone of this triumvirate –cortisol– kicks in.
Thus, what should have been a short burst of energy used for your survival is being prolonged by the cortisol –the ‘long-term’ stress hormone. Neither the threat nor the accompanying anxiety go away.
You have a threat,
but you are neither
fighting nor fleeing.
You are stuck.
You don’t know what to do
or where to go.
It is that ongoing sense of distress –again, that indecision– that equates a ‘freeze’. Elevated cortisol levels keep you in a place of constantly being ready to fight or flee, but you never definitively choose. You remain immobilized, inert. Though opposite choices in a sense, both to fight or to flee is to take action. Freezing is the antithesis of both.
This is why we often describe our stress as us feeling overwhelmed, pressured, burdened, confused, weary, over-stretched, exhausted. We are being pulled in two different directions, between two opposite actions. The threat doesn’t remove itself. The necessity for action remains.
When we are experiencing stress, it's because we're paralyzed by indecision. Frozen. We freeze in fear.
Fighting obviously takes courage, but so does even fleeing in the sense that courage presupposes self-awareness: you must know who you are, what you want, what you are capable of, and the ramifications of a given choice. ‘Fleeing’ isn’t necessarily a simple ‘running away’ from a problem: it can (and should be, in my opinion) an intentional stepping down from/turning away from a matter that isn’t worth a fight. And knowing when to fight requires certain moral courage predicated in wisdom.
–the state of inaction–
is the default position
where there is no courage.
If you know yourself and your priorities, you will gradually develop the wisdom to determine which fights are in your best interests and which not. And courage then gives you the strength to act upon this well-founded decision.
Boil together self-awareness, wisdom, and courage and what you find is simply TRUST. You trust you know yourself. You trust your interpretation of the situation. You trust you have what it takes. Trust is foundational to self-awareness, wisdom, and courage.
You trust yourself, and you ACT.
The next time you find yourself frozen with indecision (and thus experiencing ‘stress’), ask yourself: what am I afraid of? Dig deeper by asking yourself: why don’t I trust myself? and see if a persistent, underlying issue reveals itself.
Stress is simply fear-based indecision.
Fear less. Trust more. Freeze less. Act.
What are you physical red flags of emotional distress? How does your body respond? Where do you hold yourself? When did you hold yourself like this last? What were you emotionally feeling then?
How often do you feel stressed? Do you feel stressed right now? What fulness of emotions does ‘stress’ entail for you? How does stress affect you physically? At what points of indecision are you frozen? What decisions need to be made?
If you feel the panic of indecision between fight/flight (i.e. stress) kicking in, try these simple action steps:
- Breathe, deeply.
Fear & excitement are essentially the same emotion –the first is simply without breath and the second is with. Breathe excitement into your fear.
- Focus on your senses.
What can you see, hear, touch right now? This helps with mindfulness, which helps us take a step back from panicky, fearful catastrophic thinking. Connect with your surroundings.
- Trust yourself.
Actually tell yourself you trust yourself. Remember times when you trusted yourself and it paid off. Remind yourself why you are worthy of trust, and why others trust you.
- Make decisions.
Even a conscious decision to make a final decision later is still a decision in the here and now, which helps eliminate stress. Whatever is immediately actionable, do it! Whatever is not actionable, discard it. Whatever is actionable, but not yet, reserve it.
For more tips on a simple ABC process of how to handle high, panicky emotions, read here.