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May 2004
Fight, Flight or…Stew?
By Claudette Silver


May 2001
Vaclav Havel

Okay, let me give you the lingo. There’s the side kick, the roundhouse, cross punch, upper cut and of course the jab. Ooh, and the hook, how could I forget the hook? I’ll admit it. I am a kick-boxing junkie. Thanks to the likes of Billy Blanks of Tae-Bo fame and countless workout videos, kick-boxing has grown in popularity across the country. When I enthusiastically blab about my love—almost obsession—with kick-boxing, I am often met with a surprised look from the listener. You’re into kick-boxing? At first I took this repeated surprise personally, as if somehow I wasn’t judged to be coordinated enough to manage the class. Then, I asked a co-worker why she was so surprised.

“Well,” she said, “I mean you’re into nonviolence and yoga! You’re vegan, you’ve taught peace studies classes to kids and you oppose guns and the NRA. Kick-boxing just seems so…violent!”
Hmm. Well, she’s right. When you put it that way, my kick-boxing love does seem rather out of character. But I am here to make a bold declaration once and for all: kick-boxing is saving my sanity.

I doubt I could find a single adult in America who would describe themselves as even remotely “stress-free.” A 1999 report issued by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) cited the workplace as the single largest stress factor for the average American. More than 25 percent of workers surveyed said they were not just “sometimes” stressed-out at work, rather they were “very often burned out or stressed by their work.” Add to that what I call “activist stress”—the roller coaster of ups and downs inherent in simply trying to make the world a better place—and it’s no wonder a lot of us are losing sleep, getting ulcers and aging before our time.

The symptoms of stress are oh-so familiar: your heart races, your palms sweat and your mouth dries up, and you’re overwhelmed with anxiety that just can’t be shaken. Put simply—you’re stressed-out. But what exactly do we mean by stress and why do our bodies react in the way they do? And why would kick-boxing do anything to improve one’s sanity?

The Body Mechanics of Stress
I have to say I am pretty awe-struck by the mechanics of the human body. At the base of all functions is the overriding drive to maintain homeostasis, or balance, no matter what’s going on around you. For example, the heat goes up and you sweat to cool the body. The thermostat drops and you start to shiver—your body’s attempt to warm up and return your internal temperature to normal. Homeostasis is at the center of health and survival, and it is something we don’t even have to think about. Cell maintenance, reproduction and growth all function optimally when your body is in balance. In fact, throw your body out of whack long enough and these systems may cease functioning all together.

Enter a severe threat to this balance, aka stress. How does the body react? At the beginning of the 20th century, physiologist Walter Cannon, studying how the body adapts in the face of stressors, coined the phrase “fight or flight” to describe an animal’s response to stress. Here’s how it works. A physical threat comes your way—someone jumping from behind a bush or a wild animal chasing you through the jungle. The hypothalamus, the region in the brain responsible for metabolic activity, kicks into action and gets the pituitary gland going. The adrenal glands hop on board and soon a series of hormones, like epinephrine and norepinephrine, are released into the bloodstream. They are what help you through that first moment of stress by raising your heart rate and dilating your blood vessels. Blood flow is also redirected away from the digestive tract to the muscles of our arms and legs. We are able to act—either stay and fight or run for your life—in the split second after the appearance of the stressor because of the secretion of these hormones.

Another series of hormones called glucocorticoids, released by a different area of the adrenals, help with prolonged or continued stressors. They take over when a long-term solution is necessary, once the “surprise” factor has subsided. Glucocorticoids are responsible for many of the same functions as other adrenal hormones, but are released over the long haul. These systems work together hand in hand, a sort of “stress tag team” to ensure that the body has the ability to handle the stressful situation for as long as needed. These physiological adaptations are a pretty standard survival tool across the animal kingdom.

There is one rather puzzling thing, however, about this response in humans. For most of our history, the stressors likely to induce this kind of response would have looked more like a tiger chasing us for dinner rather than a traffic jam. The intense psychological stress, like emotional tension or strain, that we experience in modern life is a relatively new phenomenon. And oddly enough, in terms of the “fight or flight” syndrome, research suggests that the human animal does not distinguish between physical or emotional stress. To your body, there is no difference between anticipating a final exam and running from an enemy.

It gets even stranger. Simply thinking about a stressful situation that might occur in the future can cause our bodies to react as if it were happening now. It’s called worry, and we all know it as the anticipation of stressors yet to come. Again, our bodies react as if our survival were threatened. So what we perceive as a threat to our well-being on a psychological level, now or in the future, affects us very deeply at a physiological level.

For sure, we could not live without this stress response. It helps us escape potentially dangerous situations. In fact, like all other systems of the body, it functions best when in balance. Over time, the out-of-balance overuse of the stress response system can be a very bad thing. Remember those glucocorticoids? Continual release of these hormones causes wear and tear on the body’s other systems, including the immune system, which can lead to such modern maladies as diabetes, heart disease and digestive disorders. Turn on the stress response too often, and the body simply doesn’t have the stores of energy it needs to heal, grow, or reproduce.

In his pivotal book on stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky, Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University, notes, “If you are that zebra running for your life, or that lion sprinting for your meal, your body’s physiological response mechanisms are superbly adapted for dealing with such short term physical emergencies. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses—and they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically for psychological or other reasons.” It’s as simple as that.

Get Moving!
So what does this have to do with throwing a few punches at the gym? Because we are taught that most of our stresses are things we just simply have to “deal” with, we tend to feel helpless when it comes to doing something about them. Stress at work is a given, congested traffic and lines at the supermarket are a common price to pay for modern life. Whether they have a doggone thing to do with our “true” survival or not, we think they do—or our bodies do at least. So over and over we accumulate an excess of stress hormones in the body, and remember—the reason our stress response system exists is to get the body moving. Well all right then—here’s the key! Get moving! When I throw a punch or execute a kick, it is fulfilling a much deeper need than working for “buns of steel” or simply learning how to pummel someone. I am actually utilizing the stress response system in the way it was intended, raising my heart rate and using the large muscles of my body to fight like aerobic hell!

Also, with all aerobic activity, just like a stressful situation, heart rate increases and blood vessels dilate. This time, however, instead of having your pulse skyrocket with nowhere to go but up—as in the case of psychological or imagined stress—aerobic exercise gives you that outlet for release. And when you are finished exercising, your heart rate decreases naturally, restoring calm. Again, Sapolsky notes, “If your blood pressure rises to 180/40 when you are sprinting away from a lion, you are being adaptive, but if it is 180/40 every time you see the mess in your teenager’s bedroom, you could be heading for cardiovascular disease.” Aerobic exercise takes care of bringing down your blood pressure and you don’t even have to do a thing but shake your booty!

So, my beloved kick-boxing “burns off” these excess stress hormones in a way that sitting and stewing about stress cannot. It also stimulates the release of morphine-like chemicals in the brain called endorphins, which enhance mood and fight depression. Ideally, of course, removing the stressors in life would be the best solution to combating chronic stress. But until we can all stop working and spend our days lying on a beach eating fresh papayas, I am gonna keep kicking and punching and jabbing my way outta stress. It’s the most compassionate thing I can do for my sanity. The real opponent here is not another person or a hungry tiger, but the crazy place we call modern life.

Claudette Silver is a Satya Consulting Editor and is an artist and writer who lives with her two feline loves, Pinky and Delilah, in Washington, DC.



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