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  • Writer's pictureNeil Melanson

Bunny & Fox: Letting Go of Stress

This is a story of a bunny and a fox. It explains our evolutionary responses to stress, and shows how we can undo some of the effects of that stress. Fight or Flight A bunny is in the woods, happily doing bunny things, when it senses something awry in the air. Its ears perk up, listening for danger, its pupils dilate, to see more light, and its heart rate and breathing rhythms increase as it prepares to respond to any threat that may be lurking about. The bunny’s muscle tone increases and stress signals are released in its blood to help with the requirements of potential wound repair and intense energy expenditure. These bodily events are known as the "fight or flight" sympathetic response, and they help us in times of danger. Danger Looms As it turns out, there was a fox sneaking up on the bunny. Out from behind the bushes, it jumps out, startling the bunny. The bunny is prepared to act. Its nervous system is all wound up, ready to go, and boom! The bunny sprints off, which releases some of that nervous system energy. The bunny is quick, but the fox is quicker. The fox catches up with the bunny, so the bunny decides to fight the fox. The bunny’s nervous system is still firing up, and some of that nervous system potential is released in a furry fury of uppercuts, left hooks and crosses. This is the "fight" part of the "fight or flight," a response to imminent danger. Another Option: Freeze & Play Dead At this point, the bunny is facing some serious problems. The fox is strong, and easily overpowers the bunny in a fight. So what can a bunny do, but freeze and play dead. This is another evolutionary response, which might just save the bunny’s life. It is possible that the fox may grow tired of the "frozen in time" bunny, and leave it alone. It is also theorized that if the bunny were to be eaten alive, it wouldn’t feel as much pain. For the sake of the story, lets say that the fox really wasn’t that hungry, and grows bored of this limp bunny. So the fox wanders off, leaving this traumatized (but alive) bunny to itself. Thawing After the Freeze The thing about the "freeze" response, is that the bunny’s nervous system has been winding up the whole time, but there wasn’t a release of that nervous system potential, as in the fight or flight episodes. So as the bunny feels that the fox has left, that the threat is gone and its life is no longer in danger, it will start to release some of that pent up energy potential and release it as kinetic energy. This is known as the "thaw." Sometimes the bunny will re-enact part of the chase or fight, other times it will shake, shiver, sweat, make bunny sounds, or express some bunny feelings. It naturally wants to do this to bring its nervous system back to balance, to homeostasis. After a few moments of letting go and feeling deeply, the bunny has released all that it needed, in order to bring itself back to a joyful and relaxed, parasympathetic state. But We're Not Bunnies... So how does this relate to you and me? Well, the fight and flight response is not a new mammalian trait, it is deeply ingrained in our psyche and is know as part of our "reptilian brain." This is a part of us that is so basic to our being, that it isn’t usually a conscious aspect of our daily lives. Imagine a caveman, say 50,000 years ago, was picking some berries, when it had a sense that there was danger nearby. Alas, there is a saber-toothed tiger, which jumps out from behind the bush. The same fight or flight responses happen to the caveman, as happened to the bunny. The caveman’s heart and breathing rates increase, its muscle tone is amplified and stress signals prepare the poor caveman for wound repair and intense energy output. These forms of stress were short lived and infrequent in our evolutionary ancestors lives. Frozen in the Face of Today's Stresses These days, there are no more saber-toothed tigers, but we do have the stressors of cars nearly clipping us at crosswalks, rush hour traffic, five o’clock work deadlines, monthly mortgage bills and CNN. We are bombarded with stress signals daily, making our muscles thick and fibrous, which used to help us in blood clotting, and we are stuck with elevated blood sugar levels which used to give us the energy required for running or fighting, but now go unused as we sit in our cars on our busy and dangerous streets. Emotional Stress Here is another part of our experience: say little Johnny who is seven years old, is playing in some trees and falls. On his descent to the ground he may have moments of fear, embarrassment and panic. He lands, with a bruised ego and starts crying. Along comes his mother who tells Johnny to stop crying, be a big boy, and here’s a cookie. Now Johnny learns that it’s not socially acceptable to release his feelings (frozen moments of time waiting to thaw) and that anytime he feels stress he should eat a cookie. Now Johnny is destined to be stressed and fat! Physical Stress Sometimes when people get into a traffic accident, they might get out of the car and run. Just run! Sometimes they will get out of the car ready to fight anything that moves. This is the fight or flight response. Sometimes people are in an accident, and as a result of the experience they are in a bit of a daze, or trance, like a deer caught in the headlights. They may find a space to sit somewhere, and as soon as they start feeling that their life is no longer in danger, they may start to shiver, shake, sweat, cry or move. Along comes a paramedic, who is interested in the people not further harming themselves, especially with a neck injury, and will strap the person to a stretcher, or give them muscle relaxants so they stop shaking! Learn How to Let Go of Stress The point of all this is, that everyone carries around bodily memories of stresses from our past. Usually what people have learned to do is to tighten their bodies up around uncomfortable feelings or sensations or pain, to keep them all in and not express them. And this does work to avoid immediate displeasure or pain. You can probably remember a time when something was stressful or painful for you and you tightened up your body, maybe even held your breath. This is altogether common. Sometimes though, you forget to exhale and soften the tension. What works for some people, as they learn how to move their fight/flight/freeze responses into conscious actions from unconscious responses is to take a few minutes a day, find a quiet space with no distractions, and breathe and soften your body. Get in touch with the sensations you experience, which will give your body time to let go of and resolve some old tensions. This is a layered approach, meaning you will peel off layers of tension the more you do it, and the deeper you allow yourself to soften.

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