In the light of Corona – Part 12: Fight, flight and fatigue

I have a horse. For those of you less than familiar with the creatures, they are essentially half-a-ton bundles of muscles and nerves geared for instantaneous flight. In other words, no matter what we humans do with them, ultimately they have evolved to do only three things: eat, breed and flee. 

To begin with the physique, not only are they equipped with powerful legs capable of immense speed (and kicking a pursuer with accuracy), but their blood circulation and respiratory systems are specialized in giving a burst of everything in milliseconds. If the need arises, they simply ‘explode’ into flight, their bodies capable of pouring everything into one tremendous, boundary-pushing effort. 

In terms of mentality, as prey animals their survival depends on alertness and herd behavior. They constantly monitor the environment for threatening signals: they view everything as affordances. While the concept of affordance has lately been adopted into Information System Science to describe the unsettled nature of potential uses of data or technology, the term originates from biology. For a horse, a dog, a car, or a red mailbox are affordances, entities they do not know the use or role of, but which they view from the perspective of whether or not the unknown entity may somehow pose a threat to them. When a horse learns to recognize dogs, cars, and red mailboxes as non-threatening parts of the environment, they are ignored, and instead a surprisingly lurking green mailbox may result in a sprint the rider had no idea was coming. 

As herd animals, they always have a hierarchy. Any human-horse collaboration has to build on the horse agreeing to assigning the human a boss – there is no way of making a horse do anything by human physical force (try getting 600kg horse into a trailer it does not want to enter…). The role of the boss is to be vigilant of the threats in the environment, and communicate to the follower when there is nothing to fear, and when they should flee. For this, the horses utilize an effective and rapid communication mechanism, both in horse-to-horse communication and in human-to-horse communication. 

Horses communicate with body language, understanding it fluently also when ‘spoken’ by other animals, like humans. As a matter of fact, they understand human body language better than humans themselves: it is futile to try to hide fear, anger, happiness, insecurity or any emotion from them, because we are not so aware of the signals betraying our emotions that we could effectively hide them from a horse. When riding, we use agreed-upon ‘aids’ to try to communicate to the horse what we wish from it, and the trick is not in learning the basically very simple aids, but to learn to still rest of our bodies so that we are not constantly bombarding the poor creatures with nonsensical utterances. 

Unfortunately, as humans are less than well aware of the signals they are constantly emitting for a horse to interpret, misunderstandings occur: a human fears a horse who understands that the human fears, but not that the human fears the horse, so the horse thinks that there is something frightening elsewhere in the environment, and responds accordingly, frightening the human even more, which makes the horse fear more – and so on. From the perspective of horses, we humans simply suck at communicating. But, when there is good will from behalf of the horse (meaning that the human has been accepted as the boss), they do their best in trying to unravel what we at any given moment want of them, whether we are riding them or just hanging around them.

So, what do horses have to do with a disruption?

Dealing with herd animals evolved for flight makes also the human fight-or-flight responses and herd behavior more visible. While we are also predators, we still have the instincts of prey deeply embedded in our brains. However, in our case, those mechanisms are buried under so many layers of learned behavior and reflection, that we seldom acknowledge their existence or impact. We don’t necessarily recognize when they are activated, nor do we understand what’s happening, or how to shake the weird state of being.

The problem with the human fight-or-flight mechanism is that it is predominantly useless to us during most of our lives. Few of us actually ever enter any such situations where we would genuinely need to flee for our lives, assisted with all the physical superpowers the mechanism avails momentarily to us. The physiological changes that would enable us to run or fight for our lives include e.g. increased blood flow, muscle tension, tunnel vision, liberated metabolic energy sources, and secretion of diverse hormones that diminish pain, fatigue and increase aggression. Unfortunately for us, when we don’t use those physical superpowers in the way they are meant to be used, the physiological changes become more a burden than a blessing. (Ask any musician who has been struck with the mechanism activating in the middle of a concert or an audition.)

The uselessness of the mechanism is a problem because we cannot control it. Regardless of all reasoning and reflection, the response is autonomous, and in most cases today, quite counter-active to its aims. The mechanism is aimed at dealing with a momentary need of physical prowess, whereas the situations in which it nowadays is triggered are seldom helped with strength or speed. Instead, the events that trigger the response today would most often be helped better with increased calmness and cognitive processing skills. In addition, such sources of stress that launch the mechanism are often distant, enduring, and shapeless – they are nothing we can immediately fight or flee from. 

Still getting to how the horses relate to the corona disruption…

While we would like to think that we respond to our environment and other people through intent and reflection, we have the very same herd mechanism in place that makes the horses constantly aware of the general mood of the harras (a cool word for a group of horses I just learned). We unwittingly pick up cues and intuitively adopt the mood of the collective. Even if we had nothing to fear personally, we cannot help starting to fear when we are surrounded by fearfulness. Even the most self-assured ones of us have become afraid. 

While we, in the so-called developed societies have distanced ourselves effectively from everything death-related, the distance has not diminished our fear of death – quite the contrary. As the covid-19 has proved deadly, awareness of it is an effective trigger of the mechanisms geared for our survival.

Subsequently, most of us have been experiencing some versions of the fight-or-flight mechanism activating during the last few months. As we have been missing the enemy to run from or to engage in a battle, the shape of the activated mechanism has become blurred – we are suffering from all types of physiological and mental changes hard to pinpoint or track down. 

Additionally, the mechanism is evolved into releasing the burst of energy, followed by release of tension, and the subsequent recuperation period where the body restores itself – after the horses have fled and survived, they settle down to graze and rest, and we humans need the equivalent recuperation. However, as the corona disruption is now presenting itself, we are far from the times when we can relax into recuperation. 

This poses two types of problems. First of all, as we weary of the state of alertness we’ve been pushed into partly wittingly, partly as a result of the activated survival instincts, we start rationalizing the loosening of the restrictive practices we blame our icky sensations and feelings for. Our bodies signal that as we are still alive, surely it would be a time for relaxing, and what our bodies signal, our cognition is ready to try to justify – as proved in volumes of psychological research, the emotional tail wags the rational dog. We don’t first analyze the threatening situation and then respond, but respond first, and analyze afterwards.

Secondly, the fight-or-flight response was not designed for increasing genuine endurance. It could help in breaking records in 100m sprints, but it is downright destructive for a marathon or an ultramarathon runner. As it now looks like, we are going to be living with the threat of corona virus in both its current and potentially its future forms for years. This means that we need to nurture such modes of existing that enable us to deal with the circumstances as they should in the long run be dealt with, calm head and intact cognitive capabilities.

Going against the nature or being clever about it?

So, if we cannot help but give in to the inbuilt mechanisms dating back to our cave man times, how could and should we try to mitigate the negative impacts they have on our abilities to deal with the contemporary crisis? The key is to trick our bodies into thinking that there is no danger in order to let our brains work out the issues calmly, with all our faculties as fully functional as possible. Let’s again take a look at the horses. 

When a horse sees something it thinks as potentially dangerous, it first looks at its leader. If the leader has acknowledged the same something and is completely at ease, the horse calms down. The example of the human leaders has a similar effect – the more effective the more trust there is to begin with. We humans also have one more advantage: as we are so lousy in body language, we can be assuaged by humans leaders that are capable enough actors to not explicitly show their restlessness. Think Queen Elisabeth and her remarkable presentation few weeks back. 

When a horse is feeling safe and content, it seeks the company of other horses to pet or play with: it focuses on and relaxes of the pleasures of the physical companionship of others. Similarly, the ones of us living together with other animals (like humans or something else) can trick the brain to ease up through cuddling, hugging, petting and embracing one another. Even if it was not the habit in your household to go about touching each other, it’s a good habit to start in order to help you keep your calm. 

When a horse is unsure, it eats. The regular jaw motion relaxes it and it cannot go wrong in storing energy for the possible sprint ahead. While constant eating has its problems in terms of human beings, eating well is also a source of delight and comfort. We can also mimic the effect of jaw motion – having a stress ball to keep squeezing, or making a habit of doodling, knitting or coloring relaxes through repetition. Our brains find repetitive small things more soothing than emptiness. 

Horses also play, jump, sprint, move around just for fun. The best way to make a horse see goblins everywhere is to restrict its activity and movements – they need regular, intensive physical movement to stay sane. This applies equally to human beings: we also start seeing goblins when our bodies do not get the exercise they need. Exercising is also a good way to flush our systems with beneficial hormones that make us feel good – and when we feel good, we think more clearly. 

So, to summarize: doing things that make you comfortable and at ease are the best tools for surviving this current disruption. Happy First of May!


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