Will it be fight or flight?

“Wayne told me he saw the bear down here by my brush piles.” “And he said it was a grizzly?” asked my father.

“We hope to find the strength to stand against our fears. But sometimes, despite ourselves, we run. What if the nightmare gives chase? Where can we hide then?” —– Mohinder Suresh from Heroes

“Wayne told me he saw the bear down here by my brush piles.”

“And he said it was a grizzly?” asked my father.

Johnny nodded as he geared down to guide the old truck off the dirt road and onto the freshly cleared field.

I sat between the two older men holding Father’s .303 Lee Enfield rifle upright between my knees.

Father had grabbed it off the gun rack when we left the house.

We were jostled about as the truck dipped into the ditch and emerged abruptly onto the field.

Over the past week, a “very large” bear had been seen around the countryside, frightening cattle and causing stampedes through fences and fields. Wayne, a farmer to the west, had been out repairing fences when he noticed the bear strolling across his pasture. He watched as it crossed the cutline and disappeared amongst the new brush piles on Johnny’s property.

Being a good neighbour, he had called asking permission to hunt the bear on Johnny’s land.

Johnny consented then immediately called Father to round out the bear posse.

We were just approaching the end of one of the piles of trees when the bear rounded the corner.

I’m not certain who was more startled, us or the bear. It was, indeed, a large grizzly.

The bear threw its head back and growled, swatting at us with an enormous paw. Johnny slammed on the brakes and we all lurched forward. Just as quickly, he jammed the gearshift into reverse and we roared backward in an erratic zigzag pattern. I sat there with my mouth open, disbelieving.

Father had to practically wrestle the rifle from my grip — I was hanging onto it so tightly.

“Stop!” yelled Father. “Stop so I can take a shot!”

“To hell with that,” said Johnny.

He was intent upon getting us as far from the bear as possible. Looking back on the incident, it was an intriguing example of fight or flight.

Father was ready to stand with his trusty Lee Enfield and fight, while Johnny opted for flight, and as driver of the pickup truck he soon had us back on the road and headed back home for coffee.

Fight or flight evolved to save the caveman from the dangers of an untamed world.

Today, however, fight or flight often manifests itself in a perpetual state of stress or anxiety. When fight or flight is on “overdrive” we burn out. It’s that simple.

During fight or flight, the amygdala, the emotional centre in the brain, goes on high alert, and that signals the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormones cardiazol and adrenaline.

With these stress hormones coursing through the body, our jaw clenches, our gut tightens, pupils dilate, blood pressure goes up, blood sugar goes up and muscle tension increases.

As a result, our shoulders get tight and serotonin, the natural anti-depressant in the body, starts getting burned out so that we become irritable, anxious, depressed and reactionary.

When locked in fight or flight mode, we tend to view everything as a possible threat.

By its very nature, fight or flight bypasses our rational/logical mind, making clear thinking difficult. As a result, we tend to overreact. Our thinking is distorted.

Our fear is amplified. We see everything and everyone around us through the filter of fear.

The resulting stress can weaken our immune system, placing us at the mercy of every cold and flu virus that happens by.

Many anti-depressants and anxiety medications combat anxiety and depression by artificially increasing serotonin levels — the natural anti-depressant that “burns out” when fight or flight is sustained. The truth is many of us live every day in a low-level state of fight or flight.

For our mental and physical well-being, it’s vital to take quick action steps to get endorphins flowing and to cool off the fight or flight response. Here are some tips that may help.

Reduce or eliminate stimulants and sugar which increase the startle response.

Do aerobic exercise. Moving the body starts the endorphins flowing. Endorphins are the opiate-like feel-good hormones. Even a brisk 10-minute walk each day will work wonders.

Get a good night’s rest. Make your bedroom a stress-free zone — a sacred space where no negative thoughts, discussions or distractions are permitted.

Avoid negative people and instead seek the company of calm, well-balanced individuals.

Do a three-minute meditation: pause, focus on breathing and choose a peaceful image.

When faced with real dangers to our physical survival, the fight or flight response is invaluable. Today, however, threats often consist of rush-hour traffic, unrealistic deadlines, financial and family obligations.

We live in a state of resistance to what we’re experiencing, seldom fighting or fleeing but rather enduring the stress and thus becoming emotionally stuck.

The greater our level of self-esteem and awareness, the easier it is to recognize when we have become stuck in such heightened states as fight or flight.

With awareness, we can learn to stop, breathe, quiet the mind and come back into a state of equilibrium. With practice, these calming responses can eventually become automatic.

The late African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks expressed it well when she wrote, “Conduct your blooming in the noise and the whip of the whirlwind.” It is possible.

Wayne had no better luck dealing with the bear, but it was mutually agreed upon by the community that a call should be placed to Alberta Fish & Wildlife.

Officers arrived and were able to bait and trap the bear, ultimately reintroducing it the deep forests of Swan Hills.

In June of 2010, the grizzly bear was designated a threatened species under Alberta’s Wildlife Act.

Murray Fuhrer is a local self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca

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