Fight or flight?
We all learn to deal with stress in different ways. I learned by watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Remember when Marlin Perkins sent Jim Fowler into the jaws of danger while he provided color commentary from the safety of an armored jeep?
“It looks like Jim has successfully gained the crocodile’s attention, and he looks agitated!! Now Jim has a choice to either wrestle the croc or run for the hills.”
Yes, surviving stress pretty much boils down to one simple question – Fight or Flight? Here’s an example of what I mean…
I spent my early teen years in Kokomo, Indiana, where the landscape is mostly cornfields and country roads. One hot October night my friend and I walked out into one of those fields, plucked some dusty ears of corn and twisted them in our hands until we had a small pile of dry, hard kernels.
Now you may be asking yourself, how much fun can a kid have with a handful of corn? Well check this out… you hide in the corn 6 rows back from the country road and watch the oncoming car headlights reflecting off the telephone wire above. If you time it just right, you can throw your corn high over the road, rain it down on the windshield and scare the driver witless. Sounds fun doesn’t it? I’m not proud of it today, but boy was it funny to a 14-year old!
Until the pick-up truck came along…
Science lesson – If you’ve ever been in a pickup truck doing 60 miles an hour when a handful of corn hits your windshield… it sounds like God just dumped a bucket of pea gravel on you. Babababababa!! We heard the tires screeeeech, a door slam and the angry voice of a very large cowboy. Like a jilted husband on the Jerry Springer show, he let out a string of profanities so profound that the FCC prevents me from repeating them here. The part I remember with absolute clarity was “I’m gonna shoot your little blankety blank blanks.”
My friend and I looked at each other with wide eyes. What do you think we picked… fight or flight?
We ran flat out through that cornfield like Kentucky Derby racehorses, cornstalks whipping our faces, tripping over big dirt clods. We ran at least 200 yards until we were stopped by a fence. And then a really funny thing happened. We looked up at each other and cracked… up… laughing. That crisis shot adrenaline through our bodies, we acted on it, and ran until we couldn’t run anymore. Then we felt a tremendous sense of relief.
When faced with a gun-toting redneck, it was a simple choice to run away. But what happens when you don’t have such a simple choice… like when you feel powerless to fight or run away from stress? As adults we are often backed into a corner and end up holding onto stress over a sustained period of time without acting on it – like when you are dealing with an overbearing boss, stuck in traffic, or piling too much on your priority plate. This creates all sorts of physical and mental health problems if you don’t release the stress somehow.
Now that I am older, I have learned to fight – stand up for myself in conflict, sometimes retreating for a while and then coming back to address it more constructively. I’ve also chosen flight, but this usually means literally running more often and alleviating stress through exercise. If I avoid resolving a conflict for too long, the stress is unhealthy to hold on to. I’ve even got this little pain spot behind my right shoulder that tells me when my stress level is too high.
Everyone experiences stress. What’s important is what you do about it. As Marlin would say… “Just as the mother lion protects her cubs, you should take good care of your body and mind.”
How do you deal with stress?