Fight, Flight, or…

You may stumble across references to the “fight or flight response”. This is the common name for a theory first introduced by the American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon who took advantage of the lax animal rights laws of his time to develop several famous theories that scientists still use as the basis for our understanding of the sympathetic nervous system (or crap your body does without you asking).

His theory describes a series of chemical reactions that happen in the body in response to stress; specifically an event which threatens survival. Some of these changes, include: increased blood flow to muscles, increased blood pressure, blood clotting speeding up, and muscle tension increasing. Cognitively, the animal has an increased perception of control (this is not actual control, just the belief that they have it) and distortion of their social processing which leads to two basic emotional states: anxiety or aggression. As the name suggests, these changes occur as the body and mind prepare to fight an attacker or turn tail and run.

Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, it is believed that this response was designed to help the animal respond to acute stress. For example, running the heck away from a hungry lion which presumably will be an intense but short ordeal. This response was not designed to be a steady or constant state and perhaps given the description I’ve provided it’s easy to see how spending a long period of time in an environment which promotes constant stress could impact physical and emotional health.

When I first started researching this theory I thought about dog fighting. In order to prepare a dog for the ring, handlers do not allow them to live normal lives. They chain them in place, often near but out of reach of other dogs. They are forced to exercise, are beaten, starved, traumatized and antagonized. They train them to tear apart bait animals, taunt them with objects to encourage them to bite and yank, and deprive them of affection and healthy socialization. With no trust and affection dogs will either become aggressive to the point that they fight or they are deemed unfit and often neglected or killed. A wall and a hard place.

It’s a totally barbaric and I’m glad an outlawed “sport” in many areas, but it shows us that in the absence of love, support, and socialization and with the addition of trauma and stress the dog develops chronic aggression or anxiety; stuck in fight or flight, 24/7.

I have a rescue mutt. She is of uncertain origin, adopted as an adult. I know very little about her except that she was captured running wild in the backwoods of Ohio. When  she came home with us, it was clear she’d been through some things. When we would walk her through the neighbourhood she would lunge at other dogs snarling and barking. She was also skiddish if anything or anyone was behind her and would attempt to run away.

Nothing we tried stopped her from being a Tasmanian devil of snarling fury or a panicked rabbit darting away from a loud noise.

It was clear that on the leash she felt trapped and threatened, any dog that approached was out to get her. As a last ditch effort, I decided to take her to an off-leash dog park. My local park is not fenced and runs along a highway. It is also popular and almost always packed with dogs. It was sink or swim; I had visions of her running onto the road or getting into a bloody fight with another dog.

Neither of those things happened.

She didn’t revert to fight or flight. She acted like a dog: sniffed butts, played chase and didn’t run off. I trusted her and I guess she decided to trust me back.

Such a small thing, but so significant. Truthfully, she is still not perfect on a leash, she pulls and yanks me around although she is no longer aggressive. She is also still prone to flight if someone she doesn’t trust is behind her.  But, to me, she represents hope of change; that although she is fundamentally altered by her experiences it is possible to evolve beyond basic instinct.

So, what does this have to do with codependency and recovery?

Anxiety and aggression are both responses to fear. Many people with codependent traits grew up in dysfunctional families, some with addiction, abuse or neglect. Living in a constant state of fight or flight has conditioned us to fear (among other things) rejection, criticism, conflict, failure, vulnerability, and lack of control. We live in readiness, anxiety, and/or aggression because that’s our “normal”. We subconsciously expect the attacks and abuse to continue and maybe even believe we deserve it.

Anxiety leads to overthinking and drawing away from reality. It can cause us to get caught in those “what ifs”, which causes us to magnify and distort what is actually happening in our lives. And because we are used to bad things happening we probably don’t even realize we are stuck and out of touch. We have learned not to value our feelings and repress them which also helps to increase our anxiety, sticking us more firmly in the loop of fight or flight.

But, like my dog, we can learn to override our basic programming. We don’t have to keep doing those things that we had to do to survive. We can change. It is important to remember that as hopeless and stuck as we feel, there are choices beyond kill and cower. We can choose another path by working a program that helps us relax, restores our confidence, and teaches us to trust and let it go.

Simple, not easy, but priceless and worth the effort.

Learning to be Present

I’ve touched on this idea in a few of my previous posts, but I feel like it deserves some more cowbell.

Up until recently I would have identified my predominant traits as cynical, jaded, and salty. My natural reflex when looking at any challenge or situation is to speculate on all the things that can go wrong, obsess and worry about them, then try to come up with a million different ways to “solve” any potential outcomes. I’m so good at thinking the worst that my current job involves a heavy risk management component: I get paid to imagine disaster and try to avoid it in order to save my employer the expense of having to pay for those losses.

There is a quote floating around from Lao Tzu I’m sure you’ve encountered. It has been made into about 5 million memes:

If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.

It doesn’t matter how many times I run into this quote it always hits me with the same intensity. Tzu was a really smart dude and I totally agree with this assessment of mood and time.

The past can be depressing for a lot of us because of how we relate to it. Often looking backwards means yearning for things that are gone or wanting to change things we have no control over. Of course that’s depressing, it’s impossible to change it or get it back! Further, if you are living back there, it’s really tough to see what’s right in front of you right now. The fat lady has sung, we need to let it go.

The future can cause anxiety because we are looking into an abyss of possibility and the unknown. There is no way to guarantee that anything you are doing right now will work out the way you want it to. You might not get that promotion, you might not get a second date with that really cute person you like, and you might have a heart attack tomorrow on your morning jog. Trying to control the future or grasp for guarantees is a trap, it’s an impossible task that will almost inevitably end in disappointment and shame. Holding on so tightly to anything doesn’t mean you get to keep it. Darling, you have no control over anything but your own actions, thoughts, and feelings. Let it go.

Right now is literally all that we have. It’s concrete and interactive: you can touch it, smell it, feel it, taste it. Everything is right here, a buffet for your enjoyment! Your relationship with the present is paramount because what you are choosing to do right now has an impact you can experience on all levels. If you are living in this moment, you are really living. This is where you can feel genuine, authentic, and fulfilled.

I’m still working on developing the skill of being present. It takes time and it is normal to not be perfect. I imagine even the Dalai Lama, in his expansive mindfulness, has moments when he slips into one of those past or future traps. It is normal to be nostalgic and also to hope and work towards good things in the future. Neither of these things means that you are doing something wrong, it just means you are human. And let’s be real, it’s hard to accomplish things if you don’t plan or acknowledge the consequences of your actions.

There are a few things I’ve found help drag me into the here and now when I’m feeling depressed and/or anxious.

First, I’m trying to develop a better relationship with my past. Instead of being depressed, shamed, or yearning I try to be grateful and look at things as a lesson. With all the bad that’s happened came good. I try to focus on the good and also try to accept the bad and explore what I learned and how I can use it to work towards something better. I respect the actions that got me this far but I understand that growth needs adaptation and flexibility. I try to own my mistakes, make amends, and let it go. I try to be gentle and understanding with myself during this process. Some days I do better at this than others, and I understand that’s ok too.

Second, I try to keep worrying about the future for work. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have goals or that I blindly accept risk but I try not to get obsessive about it. I work at gratitude for where I am right now. I understand that even if I’m not where I want to be there is beauty and satisfaction in laying a strong foundation. Limbo isn’t popular, but it’s where we build and regenerate, it’s 10,000% necessary to spend time here to get somewhere different. There is happiness in the potential of a clean slate and a fresh start. I work at trying to do the best I can right now and trust that things will work out as they should, even if that’s not exactly what I think I want and it doesn’t look like what anyone else has.

Mostly I just try to stay present. I try to appreciate the interactions I have because I am fortunate enough to be having them. I work at sucking all the detail out of whatever I am participating in and I try to lighten up and be the best version of myself in the moment. I  work at trying to forgive myself quickly when I don’t do as well as I think I should or I can’t help but shrink into anxiety or sadness. I know that eventually it really is going to be ok if I believe that to be true.

But most of all I try to be my own best advocate, live and let live, let go, and trust the process. I understand that the key is to believe and trust in what I can’t yet see or imagine, as cliché as it sounds, that’s where the magic happens.

* * *

Today’s soundtrack comes from Pearl Jam.  In recovery following years of drug addiction and one of the last surviving great grunge frontmen, I can’t think of many people who would be able to capture this week’s theme like Eddie Vedder.

You can spend your time alone redigesting past regrets
Or you can come to terms and realize you’re the only one who can’t forgive yourself
Makes much more sense to live in the present tense