Friday, June 1, 2012

The Power of Adrenaline

As I mentioned in the last post, I finally learned the toolbox lesson the universe has been trying to teach me when I thought I lost my friend on Pier 39 in San Francisco. I learned another lesson during that event as well – the power of adrenaline. I posted before about the benefits of stress and adrenaline for saving our lives, but this time the adrenaline served a different purpose.

It took away my pain. Literally.

Just over two weeks ago, I sprained my ankle. I have been fairly lucky in that I have been able to walk on it, but there is no question that it hurts. On Sunday, in San Francisco, I was walking a lot, and my foot was doing alright, but it was definitely hurting, and I was definitely not walking my typical speed. I was limping along and wondering why I was being stupid enough to walk miles at a time.

When I first lost my friend, the thought of adding extra steps to my day to look for her made my foot hurt. I limped back to where I had lost her, then limped back to where I thought I might find her. But then the minutes ticked by, and I had not seen her. The adrenaline started pumping, and I started walking faster. Then I started even running. I did not feel my foot again until I found her. Somewhere in the middle of that time, I even realized what I was doing. I realized I was moving faster, and I realized it was not hurting.

Adrenaline is powerful. Even bringing my thought process to the lack of pain did not bring it back.

But then the adrenaline began to dissipate, and about five minutes after I found my friend, my foot was throbbing. Luckily, we were getting on a boat to view the beautiful bay, and I was able to not only rest my foot for an hour, but I was able to reflect on adrenaline. And yes, I actually did reflect on adrenaline during that boat ride, even amidst viewing the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge on its 75th birthday.

There is no question about why the adrenaline made me forget the pain. When we are faced with a truly mortal circumstance, the pain in our foot is far less important than the possibility of being eaten by a tiger. We are better off running away and dealing with a painful foot than being lunch. That makes sense.

But most of us, especially those of us in stressful life situations (all of us, probably), rarely come down from that adrenaline rush. Some people, especially the Kiwis, crave it, and jump out of airplanes or off bridges to feel the adrenaline. But most of us have a decent amount of adrenaline running through our systems on a daily basis we do not need to add any more.

But what happens to us when we live in that adrenaline phase? Adrenaline makes us unaware of the pain and the disease our body is experiencing. It literally turns off our sensors, so strongly that even when we realize we are ignoring the pain, we do not feel it. That might be okay for a moment (though I realize I could have made my foot a lot worse, and I am lucky I did not), but it can lead to serious difficulties over the long term.

If we notice disease or pain early, we can rest and recover with far less interruption to our lives. Our bodies are naturally good at healing, and when we notice we need to heal, and we take the time to do it, we can. But if the adrenaline we experience day in and day out blinds us to our own pain and disease, it gets worse and worse. Eventually it can get so bad, even the adrenaline can no longer hide it from our view. It hits us in the face, and we must face it.

That can be devastating. The pain and disease by that point may take a lot more than simple breathing, rest, and some extra exercise can remedy. Our hyped-up adrenaline lives often lead us into painful paths. In 2012, we rarely face the mortal dangers our stress-response adrenaline rush is designed to counteract. Instead, we face daily stressors from which we never fully release our adrenaline. It remains in our system potentially blinding us to all the pain and disease our body holds, and one day that might come back as a much bigger problem.

Ignoring a sprained ankle for 30 minutes may be stupid, but it probably will not result in a terminal disease. But what else are we ignoring in our daily lives? What are you ignoring? Is your adrenaline making you blind to your own pain and disease?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

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