So no, I’m not trying to create anxiety in the people I see by asking them to “Imagine that a tiger is running at you…”. But this is a phrase that I find myself using a lot, especially when trying to describe the system that creates anxiety in all of us.
The explanation goes like this.
So imagine that a tiger is running at you. Just a few minutes ago, you were quietly wandering through the savannah, when this hungry carnivore pops up over the grass, running straight for you.
Your heart beats faster.
Your muscles tighten.
Your breathing gets more shallow and quick.
You notice EVERYTHING around you, becoming increasingly aware of sights, sounds, smells.
Your vision narrows to the direct threat, maybe even feeling like everything is closing in. You feel for whether you have a gun; you look for the nearest tree.
All of this is in the service of helping you escape the direct threat. In this case . . . the tiger.
So let’s step back a bit, with a grateful nod to Robert Sapolsky’s wonderful book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and think through this scenario again.
Now you are a zebra, munching on some grass with the herd of your fellow zebras. You are a mammal like the zebra, so there is a similar physiological setup . . . except for the stripes. Or maybe you do have stripes. No judgement here.
So you, as this zebra, are munching on some grass and … out jumps the tiger! Your zebra body does the same thing that your human body does. There is a moment of freeze, then it is fight or flight. Your heart rate increases. Your muscles tighten . . . to be ready to fight or run. You notice EVERYTHING around you. And then you begin to run making a dash here and there, along with the herd, making “all or nothing” sorts of choices to avoid this dire threat. Your sympathetic nervous system is in high gear in order to save you.
And it does.
All of you survive . . . well, except for Allen. The tiger got Allen.
And just like that, your parasympathetic nervous system moves to calm the sympathetic nervous system down. I liken the parasympathetic nervous system to the dimmer switch; it is not off and on like the sympathetic. You slowly calm and soothe until the zebra you is munching on some grass again in sight distance of the tiger, who is now munching on Allen.
And this is where we are different from the zebras.
We worry. We fret. We would have a funeral for Allen, because we miss Allen, and “wasn’t it so scary when the tiger CAME OUT OF NOWHERE and attacked us!” We go back in time in a way to remember the traumatic event.
Or we begin worrying about the next time it is going to happen . . . even though the tiger is satiated. There is no current threat. We start thinking in terms of “what if” it happens again.
As humans with our wonderful brains that look backward and forward, we start worrying and wondering. We go back to the events that have happened to us and in some ways begin to truly feel what it felt like when the bad thing happened. Or we worry so much about the possible future next time, that we begin to feel what we would feel physically if the bad thing was happening.
And our heart beats faster.
Our muscles tighten.
Our breathing gets more shallow and quick.
Even our thinking begins to be very “all or nothing” because this is the thinking that you need in a crisis; but this is NOT the sort of thinking you need when you are in the present moment and not under threat.
We feel the threat, physiologically, even though we are not threatened.
At this point, I need to give Sapolsky his due again. His whole book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, gives you a tour through every system in your body and notes the effect of this chronic stress on us humans.
We feel that we are under threat, and there are gastrointestinal issues that result. After all, if you are trying to survive, then your body does not need to worry about digestion. This is why anxiety disorders so often travel with irritable bowel syndrome or reflux, diarrhea and nausea.
Or perhaps there are issues with our reproductive system because trying to survive is just a smidge more important than having sex.
And this chronic stress affects our cardiovascular system, our nervous system, our endocrine system . . . and on and on.
So what do we do? We go back to the zebras munching on the grass. We take a deep breath that is the sort of breath that we take when we are relaxed. We talk to our physical body; we try not to argue with our brains. We remind ourselves that we are right here, right now. The old threat has passed. The new threat is not here, not yet, and might never be. We take that deep breath because that is all we can do in this moment . . . just noticing the stripes on our neighbor, the taste of the grass, the feel of the breeze blowing around us, grateful for safety and food . . . and maybe, just maybe, beginning to think about that one cute mare just a few steps away, near the tree.