How the fight or flight (or stress) response plays out in nature. And how an appreciation of nature can help us get through the pandemic.
By James E. Porter, CEO StressStop.com
If you’ve ever picked up a worm while gardening and seen how wildly it struggles to get away, that’s a primitive example of the fight or flight response. This is a very old response which has evolved over millions of years and shared by just about every creature on the planet.
In the early spring however, after a heavy rain, I will see hundreds of worms, trying to cross my asphalt driveway. These worms are in what Hans Selye, (the Grandfather of the stress concept) called the “exhaustion phase.” The rain has driven them above ground and now, trying to cross my driveway has depleted their resources. I will pick these worms up on occasion and put them on the other side of the driveway to try and save them. But they are listless and immobile. They have no energy left to either fight or flee.
These worms are stressed to the max. They often die on the driveway on mass because, even when they are inches away from the other side, they can’t see the goal and have no energy left to get there. For human beings, the equivalent state is burnout. As the pandemic drags on, a lot of people are experiencing burnout right now, some because their resources are tapped out but for others, simply from the worry that their resources MIGHT BECOME tapped out in the future. This is what separates us from ALL the other creatures on the planet. We activate this same response for psychological reasons, not just for physical challenges. When we do this often enough, or long enough, we can get to the exhaustion phase without ever having to move a muscle.
In the wild, the fight or flight response was meant to play out in a matter of minutes. It doesn’t drag on over the course of months. This past weekend, I got to see this with my own eyes, right in my own backyard.
On Saturday, I was painting some outdoor furniture when I saw a rather large turkey walking about ten feet away. The close proximity surprised me, because normally they stay at least 100 feet away. Then I saw this tiny creature following her (which I initially thought was a chipmunk) and then realized no, it was a tiny poult (baby turkey) and there were 8 others just like it. (Here’s the video I made with my phone.) I felt truly blessed that this wild animal felt comfortable enough to walk her whole family right by me at such close range.
The next day, I was eating breakfast in the kitchen when I heard a terrible racket coming from the backyard. I looked out into my side yard and I saw two of the little babies, scurry by, unaccompanied by their mother.
I knew something must be terribly wrong, so I hustled out to the backyard. There, where our yard meets the woods, the mother turkey and a bobcat were nose to nose. I’ve seen a lot of wild animals in my backyard but NEVER a bobcat before. A little less than twice the size of a regular cat, a bobcat is a beautiful creature and on one level I was THRILLED to see it but I was not thrilled to see it attacking our resident turkey and her little defenseless flock.
It looked like the bobcat was ready to pounce on the mother and she was standing her ground, squawking loudly, holding off the attack, while allowing her little babies plenty of time to disperse in a half dozen different directions. I ran directly at the bobcat, who was about a foot away from the Turkey, and was surprised to see that it didn’t move a muscle. So I screamed “get out of here” for added effect. The bobcat, looking not the least bit afraid, finally seemed to realize that this was not going to be a fair fight and turned around and trotted off in the other direction.
Right after that the mother – who stayed close to me the whole time – saw that the coast was clear and started making an entirely different sort of clucking sound. The poults, who had been silent for the last five minutes, started peeping away while emerging from their hiding places. The mother continued to make this clucking sound until all of her babies were accounted for.
Shelley Taylor, a scientist at UCLA published a paper exactly 20 years ago in the Journal of the American Psychological Association, where she suggested that females (of all species, including humans) respond to stress differently than males. She named this response tend and befriend. Tend and befriend relies on social networking (between females) and caring for the young as a primary way to preserve the species. And I’ve actually seen female turkeys do this too.
Several years ago, again in my own backyard, there was a female turkey and her brood which had dwindled in number from eight down to four. The very next day that same turkey appeared with another female adult and four more babies just slightly smaller than the first group. The two female adults stuck together with their combined brood for the remainder of that season. Tend and befriend worked well. Working together, the two moms did not lose another one of their offspring.
But as my example from the past weekend proves, just because females do tend and befriend, doesn’t mean they don’t activate fight or flight when they need to, or when their babes are at risk. This brave mama turkey was prepared to fight to the death in order to save her flock. I felt grateful to have that mother, just three feet away from me, calling her chicks back to safety. She was back to tending and befriending and this time she had befriended across species. It was amazing to be a part of this cross-species alliance. And it’s moments like this, supplied by the natural world, that are helping me get through this pandemic.
Keep in mind, the turkey doesn’t think about the bobcat when the bobcat’s not there. That’s what keeps the Turkey from burning out. Once the bobcat had disappeared the mamma and her babies were back to peacefully grazing in my backyard. The danger was over. We humans can think about the danger, 24/7/365. That’s the downside to having a prefrontal cortex capable of imagining all kinds of nasty outcomes. If we let it play out these threatening scenarios – which may never come to pass - it is more likely to lead to burnout than the physical challenges that are associated with a true fight or flight situation.
But, appreciating nature brings you back into the present moment, and overrides that tendency to slip into future oriented (worry) thinking. And that may just help us to get through this crisis, too.