Well, it was an exciting day for me on Sunday. After living in Australia for over 10 years I finally saw a snake in the wild! Now you’re probably thinking, Carla you need to get out more… I do go walking and camping but I’ve just never seen one before (I’m sure I’ve probably walked very close to a lot of snakes and been none the wiser due to my amazingly low observational skills). Luckily hubby was with me as we went for our first walk on the Hardy’s scrub walking trail - thank you to a lovely client who mentioned it. It’s only a 10min drive from our house but you could be anywhere. The main loop is 5kms and takes about an hour at our pace (the Walking SA page linked above states 5.9km which includes an extra loop and 2-3 hrs which is very over the top). There is a good uphill section about half way through that got the heart rate up and the breathing puffing but overall it’s mostly flat. So… back to the snake - hubby being ever so switched on said right at the beginning to keep an eye out for snakes due to the time of year and location so my brain was already primed. And I had the words of a Kinesiology teacher in mind - when the eyes see something that looks snake shaped the amygdala in the brain will automatically switch you into fight/flight/freeze (FFF) mode - in my case freeze! Then the cortex (top part of brain) will kick in and reassess so if it’s actually a twig that looks like a snake the cortex will send a message to the amygdala to tell it to switch off and you can carry on with your lovely walk. Well in this case, the amygdala switched on, I froze and the sensible brown snake promptly turned and slithered away from us quite fast.
Apart from having a lovely hike that I would thoroughly recommend, it was an interesting experience to feel true fear. Seeing a snake is exactly what the FFF mode is for. I didn’t have to think about what to do, I didn’t even initially see the snake properly - it was out in the corner of the field of vision. Yet that tiny snippet of visual information was enough for the amygdala to sense a threat and send the appropriate signals down the brainstem and spinal cord to make the body step to the side and freeze. All of that happened and I’ve never seen a snake in the wild before. This body has never practised what to do when seeing a snake. We practised earthquake drills as a child at school in NZ but never snake drills!
In terms of what the FFF response felt like - it was mainly the raised heart rate that I noticed and it was interesting to note that it settled quickly once the snake had left, within a couple of minutes. Unfortunately I didn’t have my heart rate monitor on, it would’ve been great to see what it spiked too!
Now going back to a term I used earlier - this was the experience of “true” fear - true survival response.
As we often talk about in clinic, the body can also go into a less extreme version of the FFF response when there is not a true survival situation happening. Public speaking is a common example - we may get the raised heart rate, sweating, feel stuck to the spot (freeze) or want to run away (flight). We can also have this response when we simply think about a particular situation (current, past or future) or a particular person. For example, if we think about a past, stressful situation very clearly, the nervous system responds as if it’s happening again now. We might notice muscles get tense, heart rate increases or sweating (there are many different physiological responses). The good news is if we think about a pleasurable memory or someone we love we can feel the love, joy and physical relaxation associated with that. This brings us out of FFF mode and back into rest and digest mode which allows us to think clearly and rationally and problem solve if needed.
So how to use this in everyday life?
Whenever you catch yourself thinking unhelpful/stressful thoughts about a past, present or future situation:
Take 3 deep breaths allowing the belly to relax.
Notice what you are feeling and where in the body you are feeling it. Describe it as a physical sensation e.g. butterflies in the stomach. Rate the intensity of it out of 10 with 10 being high.
Then imagine someone or some place that makes you feel safe or peaceful.
Use all your senses as you imagine it - what can you see, hear, feel, smell and taste.
Stay with that place or person for a few minutes until you truly feel like you’re there.
Tune back into the body where you felt the initial sensation. Rate it again out of 10. If it’s dropped significantly (by 3-4 points) you’ve done enough. If it hasn’t, imagine the place or person again for a few more minutes and reassess.
Once the body feels calmer you can ask yourself if any action needs to be taken to reduce the stress associated with what you were thinking about. The action will now come out of a calm, rational state rather than a reactive, fearful state.