Learning from Dogs

Dogs are integrous animals. We have much to learn from them.

Posts Tagged ‘Fight-or-flight response

Being Present!

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Being in the present is the key message that we can learn from dogs. Why is this so important?

‘Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis
on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without
rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.’ ~Thich Nhat Hanh

[my blue emboldening]

Unlike Jon, I muse as an ‘amateur’ when I sense that the human psyche is attracted to fear.  I use that word ‘attracted’ simply because some stimuli that touch our consciousness seem to have more force than others. Ergo, the response to the simple question of asking someone how they are, is likely to me more engaging if they come up with some form of crisis reply than by saying, “Everything’s fine, thanks!”  Look at how the news media use the power of fear to capture our attention.

There is a strong biological explanation for this.  From the Science daily website,

The amygdala (Latin, corpus amygdaloideum) is an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe. Shown to play a key role in the processing of emotions, the amygdala forms part of the limbic system.

In humans and other animals, this subcortical brain structure is linked to both fear responses and pleasure. Its size is positively correlated with aggressive behaviour across species.  In humans, it is the most sexually-dimorphic brain structure, and shrinks by more than 30% in males upon castration.

Conditions such as anxiety, autism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias are suspected of being linked to abnormal functioning of the amygdala, owing to damage, developmental problems, or neurotransmitter imbalance.

For more information about the topic Amygdala, read the full article at Wikipedia.org

I am going to get to the point of this article but stay with me a little longer.  Let’s look some more at the ‘fight or flight’ aspect of our brains.  From the website, How Stuff Works,

It’s dark out, and you’re home alone. The house is quiet other than the sound of the show you’re watching on TV. You see it and hear it at the same time: The front door is suddenly thrown against the door frame.  Your breathing speeds up. Your heart races. Your muscles tighten.

An instant later, you know it’s the wind. No one is trying to get into your home.

For a split second, you were so afraid that you reacted as if your life were in danger, your body initiating the fight-or-flight response that is critical to any animal’s survival. But really, there was no danger at all. What happened to cause such an intense reaction? What exactly is fear? In this article, we’ll examine the psychological and physical properties of fear, find out what causes a fear response and look at some ways you can defeat it.

What is Fear?
Fear is a chain reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus and ends with the release of chemicals that cause a racing heart, fast breathing and energized muscles, among other things, also known as the fight-or-flight response. The stimulus could be a spider, a knife at your throat, an auditorium full of people waiting for you to speak or the sudden thud of your front door against the door frame.

The brain is a profoundly complex organ. More than 100 billion nerve cells comprise an intricate network of communications that is the starting point of everything we sense, think and do. Some of these communications lead to conscious thought and action, while others produce autonomic responses. The fear response is almost entirely autonomic: We don’t consciously trigger it or even know what’s going on until it has run its course.

Because cells in the brain are constantly transferring information and triggering responses, there are dozens of areas of the brain at least peripherally involved in fear. But research has discovered that certain parts of the brain play central roles in the process:

  • Thalamus - decides where to send incoming sensory data (from eyes, ears, mouth, skin)
  • Sensory cortex - interprets sensory data
  • Hippocampus - stores and retrieves conscious memories; processes sets of stimuli to establish context
  • Amygdala - decodes emotions; determines possible threat; stores fear memories
  • Hypothalamus - activates “fight or flight” response

Now I originally called this article Present Perfect but WordPress quickly indicated that the title had already been used. Once again, the old memory cells are failing me!  In fact the post of the name Present Perfect was published on the 8th June, just a couple of months ago.  Glad that I was reminded because from that article in June,

Did you see Mr. Holland’s Opus? About Glenn Holland’s lifetime of teaching music to a high school band. In one scene he is giving a private lesson to Gertrude. She is playing clarinet, making noises that can only be described as other-worldly. He is clearly frustrated. As is she. Finally Mr. Holland says, “Let me ask you a question. When you look in the mirror what do you like best about yourself?”

“My hair,” says Gertrude.

“Why?”

“Well, my father always says that it reminds him of the sunset.”

After a pause, Mr. Holland says, “Okay.  Close your eyes this time. And play the sunset.”

And from her clarinet? Music. Sweet music.

Sometime today, I invite you to set aside the manual, or the list, or the prescription.

Take a Sabbath moment. . . close your eyes and play the sunset.

Mary Oliver describes such a moment this way, “. . .a seizure of happiness. Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished.”

Because, in such a moment, we are in, quite literally, a State of Grace.  In other words, what we experience here is not as a means to anything else.

If I am to focused on evaluating, I cannot bask in the moment.

If I am measuring and weighing, I cannot marvel at little miracles.

If I am anticipating a payoff, I cannot give thanks for simple pleasures.

If I am feeling guilty about not hearing or living the music, I cannot luxuriate in the wonders of the day.

Beautiful thoughts all woven around the power of focusing on the moment (if you want to catch up on the full article it is here).

Jon’s article last Monday was all about the way forward in a positive, well-being sense.  In that article Jon showed the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs pyramid.  It’s reproduced again below; spend a few moments absorbing the nature and sense of each level in that hierarchy.

Now ponder on that fear – ‘fight or flight’ – response.  Most likely it’s going to be initiated in the ‘Safety’ level but flick straight down one level to the ‘Physiological’ layer.  All very primitive stuff and utterly out of our control!  Remember from the extract above, “The fear response is almost entirely autonomic.

Even modest amounts of these fear responses is very wearying, very unsettling.  Remember Jon touched on that when he wrote,

The point I’m trying to make is that the same panic I notice in many of the companies I work in, and in me, is based on fear of the unknown and on a lack of trust in all its forms.  I’ve deliberately underlined that last phrase because it is so incredibly important. The truth is that we get more of what we focus on. So we can choose to focus on the constant news of more difficulties, hardship and redundancies, or we can focus on what is working.

So because our fear response is entirely autonomic and because there is so much out there, all around us, pulling those autonomic strings we have to actively, quite deliberately, do what dogs (and many other animals) do quite naturally.  We deliberately have to focus on spending time being in the present!

There was a recent piece from Leo Babauta about being in the present.  While he doesn’t touch on the underlying biology of why we humans are so ‘attracted’ to fear, he does offer some excellent advice about being in the present.

No matter how out-of-control your day is, no matter how stressful your job or life becomes, the act of being present can become an oasis. It can change your life, and it’s incredibly simple.

Look at Lorraine’s website (a recent visitor to Learning from Dogs).  In particular this piece, from which I quote,

3. The Serenity Prayer – all about accepting the things I cannot change and changing the things I can.

4. People are always more important than things. Things can mostly be replaced but people cannot.

5. Do it now – if there is something to be done, then what is stopping me from doing it straight away?

6. If I appreciate and look after what I have now, there will be a positive flow back to me in the future. If I am neglectful and ungrateful with what I have now, I cannot expect to be rewarded with more in the future.

7. Be quiet and keep breathing – no one will know how crazy I feel inside :-)

8. Don’t hold on to people or things too tightly. Be open to letting go and letting be.

9. It is really important to let others know that I love them. They need to know now and often. Love isn’t just a beautiful feeling – show it by how I act and speak with those I love.

10. I can’t make anyone love me and I can’t fix anyone by loving them. I may have a script for how life should be but I have no control over other people, places or things. Go with the flow and accept what is.

(The blue emboldening is mine – highlighting the power of now.)

Grandson Morten - peace in the present

Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”

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