My Lizard Brain vs. AN ACTUAL BEAR

I appear to be a pretty chill person despite the fact that my body and mind believe I am in danger all the fucking time. Like this, but not as cute.

I have a broken Fitbit that tracks my heart rate (when it feels like it) and my heart rate skyrockets doing innocent things like checking my e-mail or making a phone call. But I can have a very thoughtful conversation with a giant honking spider or bee while everyone else in the vicinity is freaking out.

In the seventh grade, I got stung by a bee, and it didn’t bother me at all, in fact I was grateful to that mindless drone that sacrificed its life to sting me, because it got me out of gym class, which gave me daily panic attacks that I was powerless to stop because no one told me anxiety disorders were a thing.

Oh, but my sister and I just went to Wyoming and saw an actual BEAR that was maybe 100 yards away, crashing through the trees with two cubs, and it barely got my heart rate up. It was exciting, sure, but I didn’t feel like I was in danger. Mostly because my sister and I were surrounded by other people, including a park ranger, and I felt fairly confident that I could outrun most of them. My sister can fend for herself.

The bear was a cinnamon-colored black bear. They’re not as aggressive or territorial as their grizzly cousins. But they can still run 30 miles per hour. And this one had babies.

My new therapist told me that everyone thinks that fight or flight are our only responses to danger. But there are actually five in our primordial lizard brains: fight, flight, freeze, submit, and attach. Ever feel trapped like a deer in headlights? That’s freeze. Or a sudden need to call your mom to hold your hand through something? That’s attach.

Submit is when you’re stressed but suddenly feel so tired you could just go to sleep. Or you zone out from stress—just go a happy place at best, or completely dissociate at worst, which is really inconvenient when someone is yelling at you to steer the car/kayak/horse. Driver’s ed almost killed me.

Submit is like 90% of my day, from the time I can remember. That’s why I got called “spacey” all the time in school, why I blank out whenever any authority figure asks me a question, why I yawn constantly even when I’m not tired, just anxious, and then have to quickly lie that I didn’t sleep well because I guess it’s rude to yawn at a party? I don’t remember how those work.

Oh, and the evolutionary reason for the submit response to exist in our lizard brains? Because playing dead, according to my therapist, IS A GREAT WAY TO AVOID BEING EATEN BY A BEAR.

“It makes sense, doesn’t it?” she said. “You can’t run, and you can’t fight, so your body automatically shuts down and then the bear leaves you alone.”

I didn’t even feel tired around the actual bear! I get tired in the grocery store! I dissociate just opening my mail!

Shocker of shocks, I’ve been in therapy for anxiety for a long time. My current therapist had to retire (I broke her!). My new therapist is very enthusiastic about neuroscience and neuroplasticity and all these wonderful discoveries that will hopefully help me, you know, live my life, and she also told me this:

The reason that a lot of people with anxiety have stomach problems (BIG MOOD) might be because when our ancestors were running from predators, evacuating the factory (my words, not hers) was a quick and easy way to throw predators off the scent. Or throw them off their rhythm, as John Mulaney would say.

“So my ancestors were shitting themselves up and down the plains of the Ice Age?” I said. “And that’s why making small talk sends me into danger mode but I was fine with a genuine BEAR?”

“All of this is your lizard brain trying to protect you,” said my new therapist.

“Well, my lizard brain isn’t very good at its job,” I said.

Animals are more scared of you than you are of them. The exception is Canadian geese, which fear nothing. And swans. Swans will fuck you up.

Other exceptions include this deer and this elk, who did not give a shit that we were mere steps away, talking really loud about our smoothie preferences or some other inane human topic.

These bison (they’re not really buffalo! Even though we call them that! Because when the Europeans arrived they thought they were looking at buffalo but bison are a completely different thing! And yet the name stuck! It’s just more colonialist bullshit!) weren’t afraid of us either. At the national parks, bison injure three times as many people as bears do. And they can really hurt you—they look slow, but they’re not. The entire herd crossed the road right in front of our car in just a couple of minutes, and they weren’t even running, just sauntering past, like a cave painting in motion.

“They’re not supposed to be here,” said our guide, as the herd disappeared into the brush. “They evolved to survive the Ice Age. These ones that are left, they’re just the stragglers.”

And I found that weirdly comforting. The bison just kept going, even as the world changed again and again, got warmer, and is getting warmer still, as their numbers swelled and then dropped and then rose only slightly, but they don’t know they’re not supposed to be here, so it doesn’t worry them, they just keep the herd moving forward, no matter how many dumb tourists try to get in their way.

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