The physiology of being bitten by the love bug
By Elana Lavine
Across the bar, you spy the green eyes or great smile that rivets your attention. You manage to spill only a small amount of your drink as you fight your way through the crowd and upon reaching your destination you find that you have forgotten how to make words come out of your mouth. Your heart is providing a background percussion, your tongue is dry, your hands are clammy. Swallowing has become a huge task.
What happened? Where is the graceful, wonderful you? Why has your body become your enemy in your quest for someone who will only make it happier?
"These responses are unconscious," says Tom Stavraky, a course coordinator and lecturer for Western's physiology department. "You have no control over them, unless you are a yogi (one aquatinted with yoga) and that's another story. These responses are controlled by your autonomic, a.k.a. automatic, nervous system.
"One specific branch of it, called the sympathetic part, is generally associated with a fight or flight situation, in which you are preparing to defend yourself or run away."
So why does approaching an attractive person trigger this fight or flight response? "It's also an uncomfortable, embarrassing situation," explains Stavraky. "Either way, you might get hurt, whether it's getting bitten by a dog, or getting shot down by the girl or guy."
These physiological changes, triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, can include an increase in heart rate, more forceful contractions of the heart, perspiration, dilation of the pupils and a dry mouth.
Lori Tesler, a first-year honours business student, gives a personal spin on this physiological phenomenon. "When I like someone, I get really nervous talking to them. Sometimes I forget to breathe, which can be a problem.
"I end up swallowing my words. I end up either talking a mile a minute or turning totally silent. Sometimes I can't wipe this stupid smile off my face and I feel as though my intelligence has been drained out of my head."
"Your face goes red, you feel all self-conscious, you suck in your gut," laughs a male student who would rather remain anonymous. "One of my friends usually becomes the smart-ass. You overthink what you're about to say and try to play it cool."
Playing it cool can be made pretty difficult by your body's own autonomic nervous system which, unfortunately, is indeed beyond your control. Those intricate networks of nerves have helped defend the human species from various dangers for a very long time and they aren't going to be overcome quite as easily as one would hope.
So, although your body may yield similar responses for fight, flight or flirt, it's really all for your own good. And like your piano teacher used to say practice makes perfect.