"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I'm pretty sure I have a hyperactive "fight or flight" response.  Everybody knows about this, the physiological effect we've managed to carry with us (sometimes to our detriment) since prehistoric times; from the Wikipedia entry on the subject:

Behavioral manifestations of fight-or-flight

In prehistoric times when the fight or flight response evolved, fight was manifested in aggressive, combative behavior and flight was manifested by fleeing potentially threatening situations, such as being confronted by a predator. In current times, these responses persist, but fight and flight responses have assumed a wider range of behaviors. For example, the fight response may be manifested in angry, argumentative behavior, and the flight response may be manifested through social withdrawal, substance abuse, and even television viewing. (Friedman & Silver 2007)
That's if we manifest any of it at all.  Social mores mostly discourage behaviors such as popping somebody in the jaw, and any sentence with the word "abuse" in it is pretty much inherently bad.  And I doubt that any court would sympathize with a person who beats somebody up and then says "I did it because of my flight-or-fight response.  I couldn't help it."  Though I could be wrong, and this probably has happened sometime somewhere.

Some lean toward the theory that as with our appendix, which probably had a function way back when, these extreme reactions haven't dissipated while the need for them to a large part has.  Or has it?  I think that depends.

If your kid falls into a pool and can't swim, if you're mugged or carjacked, if you're on the battlefield, then come on, epinephrine neurotransmitters, we need you!!  By all means!  But there are other times when the "threat" might be something innocuous  -- except our body doesn't seem to realize this, and then, what do we do with all that excess adrenaline?

To the best of my knowledge and self-probing, there is no good reason whatsoever for me to treat every bad thing that happens as a potential catastrophe.  Every headache is not a brain tumor or an aneurysm.  (Though, my friend Gregg's mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage  in her 40's.)  Every time someone in my family is late for arrival somewhere it does not mean they wrecked their car.  (Though I was on my way to see my mother once but she was delayed, as she had hit a stone wall in a sudden snowfall, ending up in the ER with a broken upper mandible, along with my aunt who cracked the windshield with her head.)  Having to scrounge around for money for bread, milk and cat food does not mean I will be destitute for the rest of my life.  (Though the economy ain't looking too great, is it...)  

So, intellectually I know this...but it could be the one time something bad does happen, couldn't it.  Come on -- it could.  And so, when there is that threat, that possibility, I feel something unique only to this experience.  It's indescribable.  Somehow my heart stops but I'm still living.  I stop breathing, but I'm still alive.  I may SEEM calm, but that's probably the Tranxene (close relation to Xanax, close relation to Valium, "Mother's Little Helper.")

The other night driving yawningly home from my friend's house, at 9:30, on a small-town country road, I came upon a jarring scene; there was a roadblock up ahead and blinding, flashing, pulsating lights from four or five State Police cruisers that seemed to be parked in a scattered fashion, surrounding the intersection I was pulling up to.  I was tired, and still thinking about the video my friend and I had watched and how we wished it had been a better one since we had to drive so far to rent it.  I had no time to react before a young policewoman flagged me down with her flash light.

It was only a spot check.  For a moment, though, I felt as if I were in the middle of some situation which would end up with me either 1)seeing something really bad or gory, 2)told to take cover, or 3)being hauled down to the barracks in handcuffs and interrogated about a crime I had no knowledge of.  There was absolutely no way, whatsoever, for my body to remain completely calm here.  Butterflies in my stomach?  Yeah, that's putting it mildly.  At this point I don't even think my stomach was in my stomach.  In fact I don't think I've quite gotten over this yet.  Here, somebody take my blood pressure and let's find out.

To hear that one of my nephews may have a funny thing going on with his heart (born with it, apparently, but no one knows the name so I can't look it up on the internet).  To get a phone call that my brother is in the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital on a ventilator.  To learn that my father flunked his stress test and has been taken from the doctor's office by ambulance.  To hear my mother talking backward and making no sense and saying she "doesn't feel quite right."  To hear that my favorite aunt, who never smoked, has now slipped into a coma due to lung cancer.  All this has in fact happened.  All of it overloads my nervous system.  Hell, I get nervous when I see my mother's number on my caller I.D. at 9:15 A.M. when I know it's her policy never to call anyone before 10.

I'm not saying that I'm not okay in a crisis situation.  To be honest, I'm usually pretty good.  It's like someone else takes over and deals with the bad thing.  Tunnel vision, superawareness, a Job To Do.  (It's probably also a little bit of "see, I told you so, didn't I?")  But it's the initial flattening of my heart and the cyclone in my stomach, the dread that sinks my arms and pounds on my chest.  That just can't be good for a person.  Over and over again.  And dizzy?  Well, you remember the first time you mixed beer and wine when you were young -- you DID do this, right, it isn't only me? -- and you had to stick one leg out of bed onto the floor to keep the bed from spinning around like Dorothy's house in the "Wizard of Oz?"  Ha.  That's nothing compared to feeling like you are on an elevator on a small catamaran in choppy seas and you have to grab the nearest piece of furniture or wall to keep from just fainting dead away.  I don't exaggerate.

I can even see one of the cats walk away from his food bowl without eating, or lying in an awkward position, or just look peaked, and because of all the awful things my cats and I have been through (yeah, I GUESS!! -- I still owe the vet around $750), the blood drains to my feet and I get lightheaded shivers up my neck.  Which is it?  Flight?  Or fight?  Or "social withdrawal, substance abuse, and even television viewing?"  And what if Something Bad happens when things are Not Perfectly Arranged??

My friend Margie (who doesn't even know how MUCH I worry) tried to persuade me to stop worrying (and "Start Living" -- isn't that the title of a Dale Carnegie book?)  She said, blithely, "What GOOD does it do?"  Well...let's think...um...actually not too much.  Other than reminding me, because of the feeling of coming out of my skin, that I am still alive.  

On the other hand, if you worry about the worst thing(s) happening, then you'll have mentally rehearsed (over and over and over again) the manner in which you will be dealing with them.  That should insure success, right?  Forewarned is forearmed.  Let's just see what we can do to make sure these bad things don't occur.  (There's even that warped little suspicion that by always expecting the worst I can somehow prevent it from happening.)

Flight or Fight.  My pal.  My buddy.  Right up there with Panic Attacks, Cotton Mouth and Coming Out Of My Skin.  I really think I need to make some new friends.


  1. love this and can absolutely relate. see the value of blogging right here; we're not alone. We have PTSD, especially, it sounds, around animals. and health. And family. At this moment I'm worrying about the loneliness of the horse, the 8 yellow kittens we must rehome, my uterus, my fibroids, the lump in Tess's skin, my legs, how hot the house at the place is and oh yes...my very full bladder. Humor helps. You're a peach. This is a wonderful, honest post and so pitch it/link to it! xxxj

  2. Bless you Jenne! That's a lot going on...I can't say I'm glad you're worrying about stuff too, but it IS nice to hear you're not alone!!

  3. and I am right there beside you with Panic Attack, Coming Out of My Skin and let's not forget Hyperventilating and Heart Palpitations. Laurie, maybe it's in our genes because I have a lot of the same thoughts/feelings you do. Crazy, but comforting to know I am not the only one! What a long strange trip it is : )