Fight, flight – and the other thing
They say that fear and anxiety create the cortisol hormone that creates the fight or flight instinct. But as I sit here with my dry mouth, my thumping chest, my churning stomach, trembling limbs; with a propranolol tablet making it’s way down my gullet, a chamomile teabag brewing beside me and a clock telling me I should have been asleep three hours ago, I know there is something else:
Cortisol creates a third complex pattern of behaviour.
It’s like a dark, cold black hole, a whirlpool of never ending directionless movement. I am trapped inside a place where neither fight nor flight are an option. It’s like the holding room where those decisions are supposed to be taken but a decision is never made.
‘Fight or flight? Fight or flight? Fight or flight?’
This is purgatory.
I don’t have the prickles of a hedgehog and an ability to roll into a ball until danger has passed, I don’t have roots like a tree and the certainty that I can keep steady until the storms have ceased. Instead I feel like a leaf: trapped and at the mercy of the elements, whirling and hurtling around. Alone, loose and at the mercy of things beyond my control. Only I’m not a leaf – it’s worse because I have a brain and I’m not simply at the mercy of elements that come and go – I’m at the mercy of recurring cortisol that I can’t switch off.
Pump, pump, badum, whoosh, whoosh, pain, breathlessness, pump, pump, badum, whoosh, whoosh, kick in the head, kick in the guts, pump, pump, pump, round and round, on and on.
I try to train myself. I learn about all the ways to relax, to switch off, to concentrate on other things, to breathe deeply. I’ve read about every trick in the book. But this is an old dog, this cortisol inside me. You can’t teach it new tricks. It’s dangerous. And that’s what scares me. It scares me a lot.
I’ve felt what it does to me immediately I begin to feel anxious. I’ve felt what it does to me a day after feeling anxious. I’ve felt what it does to me a week after feeling anxious. I’ve read about cortisol and how it damages the body and the immune system. And while the short-term effects are unpleasant, I wonder what the longer-term effects have in store for me and what is already happening.
Just looking at the time now not knowing when this will stop but knowing I will be tired tomorrow is upsetting me and stoking the fires in my belly. I am pulsating. There’s a kicking feeling in my head. My fingers quiver above the keyboard. And yet, I am not fighting or fleeing, I am merely drowning in this rotating hollow, going round and round again and again in a dark helpless predicament. Being anxious about when this will stop gives it more potency.
The trouble with this fight or flight theory is that it suggests a certain amount of enabling, of action. Yes, in times of trouble and panic and extreme anxiety I can and I do either escape from or try to battle my way through a situation to find a way out, but we are not wild animals and fleeing and fighting are not the only options anymore.
I wish I could run away from this. I really do. I wish I could battle my way out of it too. Alternatively, I wish holding on and sitting it out like a storm with a feeling of reassurance was an option. But there’s nothing to hold onto. This place is the loneliest, darkest, most helpless hellhole on earth. There’s no running, no fighting, just swirling.
You can see, perhaps, why depression and anxiety are so closely linked.
When I look back at what I’ve had to avoid in life to curtail these attacks, much of it makes me shrug. I don’t mind too much. I’d rather feel well. But I can’t avoid being human and having emotions and opinions, and I can’t avoid being part of this world. When the fight or flight instinct does kick in it might be best for my health to flee or fight, but it’s not best for other people so I hold that swirling mass inside my belly and it gurgles and churns until it takes me with it. It is worse at night of course. It feels like it will kill me and then in the morning I find I am still alive. Tomorrow I will need to take a trip to a world in my head where life is simple and bad things never happen. I will have to shut things out and shut off the concern. It’s become a habit, this rehabilitation period.
People like to tell me “we’re all the same”, “we’re not so different”, “we all have the same needs”, “everyone feels like that”. I know some of it is well-meaning so I don’t know what to say. But I don’t think every feels the same. I know everyone doesn’t feel the same. And I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.
I think the propranolol is working. My chest is not hurting quite so much. That’s something I suppose.
I’ll try one more chamomile tea and hope that writing this down has helped.