I hear it all the time… “I carry my stress in my neck and shoulders”. I want to reply: “Of course you do, everyone does.” Let me explain…
We have an ancient stress management system in our body that we call “fight or flight.” I call it ancient because it’s been around as long as human kind but it hasn’t kept up with the advances we’ve made in the area of stress. Today, we tend to put our stresses into neat little categories: Emotional stress, mental stress, work stress, family stress, kid stress, in-law stress, good stress, bad stress. Back in the day, however, there was only stress. Usually involving that proverbial saber-tooth tiger that you needed to either fight or run away from. Today, we can neither fight nor flee from most of our stresses; this makes fight or flight somewhat outdated. In a (small) nutshell, here’s what the fight or flight response does:
You might be wondering why the body spends so much energy protecting the front of the neck, and it’s a fair question. Well, it’s all back to that ancient response of treating all stress as if it’s a physical danger.
Take a moment and feel the front of your neck. It’s soft and squishy, isn’t it? There are no bones protecting the blood vessels and nerves that connect the brain and body; and there’s only a thin layer of cartilage protecting our windpipe.
Now imagine that you’ve encountered our saber-tooth tiger. Even if you choose to run away, there’s a good chance that the tiger will get in a razor-clawed swipe at you. That’s the beauty, and frustration, of our ancient fight or flight system. It’s perfect for protecting us from the most dangerous type of stress, the physical threat. Unfortunately, as I’ve already said, the majority of our stress now-a-days isn’t a physical threat. Can you imagine fighting or fleeing the next time your boss gives you a huge project and wants it yesterday. You may want to, but that’s not really an option – at least not if you want to keep your job.
I sometimes wonder why our body’s stress response system is so outdated. But it doesn’t really matter; we have to deal with what it is, not with what we want it to be. And with all due respect to our bodies, the amount & type of stress we have now is a fairly new phenomenon, evolutionarily speaking. Besides, I think you might agree when I say we have far too much stress anyway. Maybe that’s why our ancient stress response hasn’t gone out of it’s way to change with us.