Back in the day – I’m talking thousands of years ago – when we turned a corner and ran into a saber-toothed tiger or some other imminent danger, we were hardwired to either fight or flee. To give us the boost we needed to do either one of those actions our body dumped five really intense chemicals or hormones into our system – cortisol, acetylcholine, epinephrine, insulin and adrenaline. All five of these are highly stimulating. They pumped us up to do what we needed to do to save ourselves. Whether we stood our ground and fought, or we decided to run away as fast as we could, we burned off all those chemicals in the process. It is an amazing gift, these five stress response chemicals.

Each of these substances are still vitally important in their own way in small amounts, but these days there just aren’t many saber-toothed tigers roaming around. We don’t often need these chemicals/ hormones dumped into our body all at once, unless in extreme circumstances, like when a person lifts a car off someone during an accident.

Stress puts your body chemistry in a state of flux giving you mental, physical and emotional fits. You might react in the extreme not only to major life events but also to the most minor ones as well. Raise your hand if you sometimes lose your shit when someone cuts you off in traffic or the cashier has to change the receipt tape in the register just as you are checking out.  The problem is that our bodies still dump these five chemicals into us in large quantities whenever we get the least bit stressed or scared. We don’t burn them off like we used to so they build up.

When they build up inside your body your heart may race and feel like it’s pounding in your chest. You may get sweaty or sometimes feel clammy. You might get really jumpy and jittery (think drinking 8 cups of coffee back to back). Sometimes your head may hurt. You might start breathing really, really fast. Your fingers or toes might get tingly like they’ve fallen asleep or even go completely numb. You might shake or tremble as if you’re really cold but may actually feel as though you are burning up. You could feel like your throat is closing up and that you can’t swallow or even breathe easily. And you can even have trouble thinking straight and expressing yourself verbally. The biggest problem is that when these things start to happen to us we get freaked out about it. But getting freaked out is just another form of stress so our body responds by dumping more of these chemicals into our system. This is when I start calling them the five “bad boys of stress” because they are no longer doing you any favors.

The best things to do when this happens:

Stop the freak out cycle. First, remind yourself that you now know and understand exactly what is happening and that there’s no reason to freak out about it.

Drink a small glass of orange juice. The juice increases your blood sugar which gives the runaway insulin something to do.

Distract yourself with a cognitive activity so you can break the cycle. The part of your brain that is stressing out, or even freaking out at this point, is the same brain center that is required for focused thought. I like to pick a really big number and count backwards by 7’s (4,568 – 4,561 – 4,554 …). A sudoku puzzle will also do the trick. Something too easy like word search though will not.

Do something active to burn the chemicals off like go for a walk or do jumping jacks. Remember, the original purpose of all these chemicals was to help you fight or run away. You need to burn them off.

To get your heart and breathing to go back to normal do this four-count breathing exercise:

In, 2, 3, 4

Hold, 2, 3, 4

Out, 2, 3, 4

Rest, 2, 3, 4

Say the above inside your head as you do it. Each in-breath “stacks” on top of the one before it until it feels like there’s barely room for the 4th one. Hold those breaths for the count of 4. Each out-breath is a separate exhalation until the 4th one is almost a wheeze. Then rest “empty” for a count of 4 and do it all over again. Do at least 5 rounds of the whole thing.

It is OK if you get a little light headed. It just means you are actually getting some good oxygen to your brain. If you live in Western culture you likely breathe so shallowly that you never get adequate oxygen and when you do get a good dose of it, you get a little dizzy. This just means you’re doing it right.

The count of four is important because your body is highly responsive to it. This rhythm aligns with the beat of your four chambered heart. It’s one of the reasons humans are most responsive to music in 4/4 or 2/4 time. Waltzes and syncopated rhythms feel “weird” and unnatural to our bodies because they are off the natural beat of our hearts. Practice any or all of the above as soon as you recognize that brewing chemical storm sensation. Now that you understand what is happening it will be easier to get a jump on it and bring it back under your control. Being able to marvel at the amazing complexity of your body goes a long way towards making peace with it.