by Dr. Alberto Villoldo: Fright, or the startle response, is part of a system that allows us to react instinctively to danger…
Fright is different from fear and it serves a purpose to ensure our survival. Our instincts are designed so that in a state of extreme stress, our fight-or-flight response kicks in. Our glands pump adrenaline into our bloodstream, making our blood sugar levels rise so that we have the energy to put up our dukes or flee the danger.
Animals naturally readjust their nervous system to its normal calm-but-alert state after a stressful event. Humans, unfortunately, lose this innate ability after the first six to eight weeks of life. To compound that loss, we tend to live in a constant state of fight-or-flight. We’re stuck in a traffic jam, frustrated that we can neither move nor take out our aggression on the “idiot” in front of us. We come home from a long day at work and a harried commute, and snap at our partner or the kids because of something that happened at the office. We’re continually on red alert, adrenaline coursing through us, because of our nonstop stress. And since we no longer have the ability to shake it off, like an antelope or a newborn, cortisol is released into our bloodstream and wreaks havoc on our organs and cells. The HPA axis—which refers to the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands—regulates our fight-or-flight system. When the HPA axis is turned on all the time, you become hyper vigilant, misread the signs of danger, miss opportunities, and pass-up possibilities. You sleep but do not rest well, are unable to meditate, and your mind runs wild. Your world is no longer safe.
There’s nothing as lethal to our organs as high levels of cortisol, a substance that’s toxic to the brain. Besides destroying neurons, this steroid hormone upholds the neural pathways that “replay the tapes” of past events that caused us distress. This is because the human brain is unable to differentiate between a real stressor (such as someone saying something offensive to you) and a recalled one (such as replaying the tape of the last time you were verbally assaulted). The brain responds to both real and imagined stressors by triggering the fight-or-flight response.
Even when we do our best to manage stress, we tend to click into that fight-or-flight state far too often. Our heart races and our breath becomes shallow as we look for our temporarily misplaced wallet or keys, we become anxious watching a TV news story on how a nearby nuclear power plant is an easy target for a terrorist attack, or how some new and especially horrible and deadly virus is certain to be diagnosed any day now. We are so used to taking in this kind of anxiety provoking information over the course of sorting the mail or eating dinner that we don’t realize that we’re having a chemical and physiological reaction to it.
Medically, this is known as an exaggerated startle response: Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, triggering the dumping of adrenaline, cortisol, and sugar into the bloodstream, but the relaxation response doesn’t follow. We can’t shake off the perceived danger, and even after the initial stress has subsided somewhat, we remain in a state of alert.
Fortunately, there are ways to deal with excessive stress. The hippocampus modulates the adrenals’ production of cortisol, much like a thermostat adjusts to temperature changes inside your home. When the hippocampus is functioning optimally, it is able to maintain cortisol production in response to stress at a normal level.
We can also quiet our HPA Axis to help relax the parts of the body and brain that produce damaging stress hormones. The shamanic practice of quieting the HPA promotes deep relaxation and helps you tune your chakra system and reset the fight-or-flight response.
Shamans also discovered a way to reset this system energetically to make the world safe again for someone. In the jungle they call it “bringing the jaguar down from the tree.” I had no idea what they meant until I understood that the jaguar represents the fight-or-flight system: your jaguar gets spooked, climbs up a tree, and hisses and claws at you because it doesn’t feel safe. When you bring it down from the top of the tree, it rests in the lower branches or on the ground in complete relaxation, like the cats do.
This energetic practice, called Decoupling, is a powerful tool you learn in our training. In essence, it tunes the rhythm of the second chakra to the heartbeat of the Earth, to the Mother, and once that is done, the fight-or-flight system is reset. Through Decoupling you can help others live in a world that is safe, that they can count on, that they can trust in.