I spend a lot of time thinking about emotions, finding them odd more often than not. Grief, for example, is capable of rearing its sad little head over the most miniscule things—like the time I lost my favorite pen. I tore my purse apart, thinking it must be in the bottom before realizing that I must have left it somewhere while out running errands. It’s not like it was valuable in terms of cash. It had a logo on the side from a local business. Probably cost a few cents to make. But it was a loss, and my favorite, and I grieved.
The primitive nature of the fight or flight response is as odd as it is intriguing. It’s the mechanism that triggers emotional, physical and mental changes in response to danger like when a zebra spots a lion stalking nearby. In the case of the zebra, flight is the general option, (or at least that’s what I’ve seen in nature pictures and videos). Other animals have been known to prepare to fight, maybe they’re defending their young, or territory, or maybe the animal’s been cornered.
One reason I’m intrigued by this emotional trait is because it’s one of the most primitive response mechanisms ingrained in living things. It’s comparable to the instinct for a newborn to feed from its mother, and isn’t just confined to the wild animal kingdom, either. Humans are gifted with these traits. It’s the very essence of survival.
I grew up in a place where the fight or flight response was a normal part of everyday living. I carried on into my teenage years, twenties, and beyond. It became ingrained on my psyche as my reality. I knew no other way. I was crippled by it—stuck—and had no clue as to how to turn it off, or even if I should try.
I often think of the dogs, cats and other critters who have been subjected to years of battering. If they aren’t rescued quick enough, fight or flight eventually transforms into a learned helplessness. The natural instincts of survival for these animals no longer exists, or exists in the form of submission.Big dogs seem feeble and weak when approached. Cats, once domesticated, run and become feral. They are forced into living as a shadow of the character each was born to be..
On a positive note, the effects from being stuck in such a dark, dreary, panic-stricken place can be overcome. I’ve taken in animals that once lived under the most horrific conditions, and readily declare myself a first-hand witness when it comes to seeing warm, friendly love, and happy-pet laziness, return. It is possible.
Our Daisy Daffodil dog was left tied up in the basement of a foreclosed home. Starved, neglected and God-knows-what-else, Daisy has gone from being a shy, subdued, 30 pound pup to a tail-wagging, blanket-stealing monster, weighing in at 70 pounds.
In recent years, I’ve been able to put aside the sensation of learned helplessness, too, to the point that I don’t even recognize the woman who used to live in my body. I can’t wrap my brain around her, though I know everything about who she was. I feel sad for her, yet have come to like the confident woman living in my skin now, better.
I’m connected to the time I spend with each of my children, as well as a group, rather than going through the motions in a fight or flight fog . I take walks. Lots of walks. Everywhere. I see individual weeds and blades of grass growing along the roadside. I find fossils amidst heaps of lime stone. I can hear the sound of the creek, and feel its cool water run across my bare feet. I can smell the fresh smell of young kittens. I can be a good friend and coworker…I can do anything!
I fight against the permanent illness bestowed upon me from living in fight or flight mode for so many years. Some days I barely notice it lurking beneath the surface, and some days I don’t even notice it at all. Then, there are days like earlier this week where I’m reminded in a powerful way that this primitive instinct is truly a gift.
I’m safe now, and all the people I care about are safe, too. No longer helpless, I will face this most current threat with a fight. I will survive.