Saturday, August 4, 2012

fight or flight

Panic. That system flushing sensation of a million miles a minute. It's not something that comes on slowly. No no, it hits you so hard and so fast no clear thoughts can break through. Something inside our instinctual human selves is telling us that our environment is a dangerous one. Our safety is threatened.

Last week while happily heading up our usual path at Griffith Park, Rob and I saw something strange. A medium sized rodent with big eyes was crouched off to the side of the wide dirt trail.  Just as the words "hey look..." left my lips we both spotted the large Rattlesnake immediately behind this poor little thing. Adrenaline shot through my veins so quickly I could have sprinted back down the trail fast enough to medal in the Olympics (there's a yellow medal right?).  Rob inched closer and tried to get it to go away by throwing things at it. That snake only had eyes for it's meal. I ran past the duo instead of back down because no way in hell was I giving up my daily hike because of a hungry snake. I wanted to run all the way to the Observatory, but Rob wanted to stay and try to get it off the trail even as I begged him to stop.  Finally, the waiting was over and the snake slowly started to circle around so it could swallow the prey headfirst. I convinced him to give up at that point and Rob, ever the protector, came with me. It took a few minutes, but once the danger was out of sight my breathing began to return to normal and I no longer felt dizzy and shaky.

I spent some time today thinking about our human panic response. Often it's referred to as our "fight or flight" reaction. Our bodies are swiftly energized to either fight whatever may be threatening us or to run away from it until we're in a safe place.  But what happens when the threat isn't something we can see? What about when the thing that we are most afraid of is inside our own minds? We still have the immediate and sudden urge to fight it or to escape, but those aren't options when the danger is our own thoughts, our own feelings.  And so we panic and have no resolution. All of the physical symptoms are the same. The breathing that can turn to hyperventilating, the shaking that makes you wrap your arms tight around your body in an attempt to slow the personal earthquake, the racing thoughts that make very little sense, the realization that you are out of control...and nowhere to run. It's impossible to hide from the monsters in your head.

Nobody can throw sticks at your fear or help you run away. Our fears will always live in those crevices we like to ignore. What I started to wonder is what if we were able to call them by name.  What if we went on a snake hunt inside our own hearts and named each demon we found there. Oh it's you Fear of Abandonment. I see you're still ugly Fear of Death. And you.. Fear of Change..I thought you'd moved on by now. What if we could look each one in the eye and see them as part of ourselves and by doing that somehow take away their power to sneak up on us in the dark.  It's wishful thinking I'm sure, but I'm not above wishes.

On our way back down that same trail at the end of our hike, we rounded the bend to find other hikers watching what I imagine is the local Griffith Park snake wrangler shooing that Rattlesnake off the trail with a very long stick. It was a slow process. The snake had a full belly and a bad attitude, but eventually made its way down into the brush to hide and digest.  I found that I was much less afraid of snakes after this encounter. There is no longer the "what if" in my mind of what it would be like and what I would do. Now I know. Now I'm tentative but not immobilized...

As we continued down past the wrangler, I heard him say "I've seen bigger ones than this up here!"

I may borrow that line on my next snake hunt.

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