Skip to main content

Your survival instinct is killing you.

That's the title of Marc Schoen's new book, and also a provocative thesis to consider as we try to juggle our way through life in the modern age.

"We have a survival instinct to keep us out of danger. It has helped us to survive as a species. But when it was needed in the past, there was a clear threat – a spear thrown at us or a tiger attacking us. But now the survival instinct kicks in 24/7, as we go through life. We need to reserve it, instead, for when it's needed, rather than be on overdrive," the professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, says in an interview.

You probably feel that sense of overdrive as you go through life. When things speed up and you hit obstacles, the survival instinct prompts the release of adrenalin into the bloodstream, increasing your heart and breathing rates and enabling a "fight-or-flight" response. But when the body is constantly on overdrive, that heightened state can lead to inflammation in the body. And that, in turn, leads to illness and faster aging. "The bottom line – I don't want to be hyperbolic – is we are just accelerating the aging of the body," he says.

From the word agitated, he coined the term "agitance" to understand this internal turmoil. Agitance describes our internal motor, how revved up we are. It differs from stress, which comes in relation to a specific incident, like a meeting with a rampaging boss. This is a more constant state of affairs.

"Agitance is an aggregate sum of how up we are over a day. Whether on the computer, even surfing the Web, not working, or reading e-mail, these agitance [levels] speed us up on the inside," he says.

People 's lives today are more sped up than every before, their internal agitation at high pitch. Prof. Schoen, who has been in clinical practice for 33 years, says he sees kids coming in today with symptoms that he used to see only in later life. The reason? Their agitance level – survival instinct – is too high. They've never encountered a spear or a charging tiger, yet they're in a constant state of agitation and excitement that's leading to insomnia, pain, addictive behaviour and a whole host of physical ailments.

The limbic brain – that part of our brain that handles emotional response – senses danger, and the survival instinct takes over, not because we are physically threatened but because we are uncomfortable. As we get used to more convenience in our lives, our comfort zone shrinks and we are less able to tolerate discomfort. Now, something quite simple can trigger this mechanism.

"We don't have more stressors than past generations, but are less able to manage them," he warns.

Here are some solutions he offers:

Take a technological time out

Stop all technology involved with work at least one to two hours before bedtime, and limit technology at other points in your day when it's not needed. Often we are on the computer or smartphone, arousing our bodies, far more than required.

Value and tolerate imperfection

Prof. Schoen argues that the rise of technology has led to a greater need for perfection in ourselves and what we expect from others. "When things don't line up, we get irritated. As a culture, we are less tolerant of being imperfect. If we make it that the only way we'll be comfortable is if everything lines up perfectly, we're setting ourselves up for failure," he says. Our self-esteem, and happiness, in particular, are diminished. Instead, see whether you can value and appreciate imperfection, like musicians who, in a world of digitized music, are opting for older, distorted analog models of music. He says the goal should be to shoot high but not feel any shame if we miss the mark.

Limit sensory input

We are bombarded during the day with stimulation to our senses. Over time, this builds into an expectation, and we crave more sensory stimulation. Without it, we become bored, sluggish and depressed, which elevates agitance.

"I see this in myself. I am almost 60 and it has crept into me," he says. "How often do we want to eat, engage in conversation, watch TV and check e-mails at the same time? That's a lot of stimulation, and we are becoming dependent on it," he declares.

Hollywood directors he knows talk of the need for speedier and speedier cuts in their movies to satisfy their audience. He says we need to retrain ourselves to be comfortable with less sensory stimulation – to be happy with relaxation, tranquility and peace.

Chill at bedtime

People assume that if they fall asleep quickly, they are relaxed. But many people carry the stress of the day into their sleep, which is then less restful and rejuvenating than preferable. They get up during the night or wake up tired in the morning.

More ominously, that tension can result in gastro-intestinal symptoms, headaches and anxiety, skin irritations and rashes and, the biggie, heart attacks, which he notes are common Sunday night.

Other tips include slowing down, not trying to get it all done, embracing uncertainty, kicking your anger habit and taking time for a true breather – relaxing by paying attention to your breath. It can help to tame your survival instinct, reserving it for true threats rather than daily agitation.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter