Friday, November 11, 2011

The fight-or-flight response done right

This post could also be called “A reminder that stress is good.” It is very common to hear people talk about the dangers of stress. But we rarely talk about why we have stress and the good place it has in our lives. The truth is that we would not be here as a species if it were not for stress. Another way to explain stress is the fight-or-flight response. When teaching Stress Management for Lawyers (or Professionals), I have often used the hunter-gatherer scenario. But this week I got my own reminder of the good stress can do in our lives.

When I was applying for the Fulbright scholarship to study family law, I was trying to decide between applying in New Zealand and applying in Australia. There are many reasons I chose New Zealand, but one of them was the lack of large animals that cause significant injury. While Australia is full of spiders and snakes and unimaginable creatures that can kill you in an instant, New Zealand has nothing of the sort. Their spiders are friendly, and they have no land snakes. None. Plus, they have penguins.

It was during a search for said penguins where I had my “stress is good for you” reminder. I live in Dunedin, New Zealand, which is the country’s fourth largest city, and it is known for rowdy students and cold flats (that’s housing to us non-Commonwealth folk). It also is connected to the Otago Peninsula, one of the greatest places to see penguins, fur seals, Royal Albatross, diverse marine bird life, and sea lions. The easiest place to see the penguins without a tour is by going to a beach inhabited by many sea lions. I have been there twice this week.

The first time I went, the Department of Conservation volunteer gave us the instructions, which included: stay 10 metres away from the sea lions and 200 metres away from the penguins. She also told us what to do if for some reason a sea lion starts charging. I heard the word run, but for the life of me cannot remember if she said RUN or DON’T RUN!!! This is why we need to talk in positives! Most of the time, sea lions look like logs on the beach. And even when they are moving about, they are so used to humans they don’t do anything but give us funny looks.

This is an example of what not to do around sea lions!

But sometimes they want to “play.” While walking down the beach, my friend and I saw a female sea lion playing with a male sea lion. We kept our distance and just kept walking toward the penguin viewing hide. About 30 minutes later, having not seen any penguins, we started walking back up the beach. That’s when the female sea lion took an interest in us. That’s when she started “playing.” I don’t know about you, but playing with a 300-pound creature with really large teeth is just not on my list of things to do . . . so we ran. Then we stopped and held our ground. According to my friend, I “held my ground” while walking backwards. The sea lion kept following.

Luckily for us, there was a sand bluff, and my friend is a runner. She ran up the bluff, and the sea lion attempted to follow her. By then, she was already exhausted, and she just sort of collapsed. That was good because I was not on high ground, though by then I was farther away from her. (For the record, I did not want to leave my friend, but the sea lion managed to get between us because I’m such a slow runner, so it was safer for us to split up, but my friend and I could see each other the entire time.)

We both, or I should say all, escaped unharmed, but my friend and I ran about halfway down the beach before we finally stopped (and before she almost tripped over one of the males lying lazily on the beach looking like a big log).

Then we got to the other side of the beach, and there was a penguin up on the rocks (yes, they climb, and it’s really quite impressive). There were, of course, several more sea lions near us, but they were asleep and ignoring us. I said to my friend, “my adrenaline is coming down.” Her response was, “mine came down awhile ago.”

And that, my friends, is stress done right. We have a stress response to save our lives. We are supposed to fight or flight, and I have to remember to look up which one it is for my next trip to the beach. We are supposed to get excited and stressed at times. But the stress is also supposed to dissipate when the problem goes away. We are supposed to come down from it.

Penguin! It's the blue/black blob to the right of the green bushes.

The problem in the modern world is that so many of us live in a state of constant, or chronic, stress. The stress hormones never come down. We never get a chance to come out of the stress response and back to a state of calm. And perhaps more importantly, if we are in a constant state of stress, what happens when the really big event occurs, and we need the benefits of stress, but we are already so burnt out we cannot muster any more of the good stress? That is when we end up “playing” with sea lions instead of blogging about what is, in retrospect, a really funny experience.

How would looking at stress as a good thing change your perspective?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

1 comment:

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